Kevin and the Crayfish

I met Kevin in analytic chemistry. I was a sophomore. The class was a hundred-twenty plus lecture. As was my practice, I prayed before going into the room, asking God to show me who he wanted me to speak to. I then took a seat in an empty row and waited for God to guide me toward someone.

Kevin was from Taiwan. He’d only been in the States for a few weeks. He was tall, maybe six-two or six-three, and thin. Later I’d learn that he was a semi-famous model back home-the type of person you feel like you know, but can’t place.

Kevin sat in my row, two seats away from me. I extended my hand across the empty chair and introduced myself. Kevin was happy to make a friend. After class we walked together to the cafeteria. I peppered him with questions.

At lunch I learned all about Kevin. I learned about his caring mother and intense father. I learned all about his decision to cross an ocean for college because he believed it would ensure him a place in medical school back home. I even discovered his passion for sports that were at the bottom of my list, like tennis and soccer. Truth be told, Kevin and I had very little in common except that I wanted to be his friend and he needed a friend.  After lunch Kevin and I parted ways. I remember watching him walk away and praying for him. I prayed I would be a blessing to him, and that I might be able to share Jesus with him.

My relationship with Kevin continued to grow as weeks past. Quickly, we discovered that my roommate shared classes with him as well. Kevin began spending time in my apartment. We studied together for our weekly quizzes, and shared more meals. After a few months, he even began attending church with me.

Watching Kevin in a Sunday morning service was fascinating. He wasn’t comfortable singing, but he would stand when the rest of us stood and sit when we sat. While we prayed, he would watch the room with curiosity; and how much of the sermon he grasped was a complete mystery to me.

Around the same time, Kevin’s questions began. They seemed to come at random, with no warning. One chilly February morning as we walked to class together, he asked, “Explain the difference to me between Matthew and Mark?” In the cafeteria as we munched on pizza and I talked about failing a bio test, he declared, “I don’t understand how you can believe in something you have no evidence of. You need to explain this to me.” In the middle of a racquet ball game, he caught the ball with his free hand and said, “This Holy Spirit thing makes no sense. Can you break that down for me?” I fumbled through answers as best I could, often offering more questions than solutions.

Then, one Sunday in late April, it happened. That day, nothing about Kevin’s behavior changed.  He stood when we stood. He sat when we sat. He didn’t sing. He listened quietly to the sermon. Then, after the service had ended, he looked to me and said, “I think I’m ready.”

“Ready for what?” I asked.

“Ready to start following Jesus,” he replied.

I was ecstatic. I began searching the worship center for my roommate because I knew he’d want to be a part of this moment.  Seeing him in the back of the room, I screamed and waved my arms, but he didn’t see me. In my excitement, I began stepping over pews, avoiding the crowded aisles, making my way to the back of the room, yelling my roommate’s name. I caught him at the door and told him what Kevin had said. We both screamed like teenage girls seeing the Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan show. Recognizing that we couldn’t pray the prayer of salvation without Kevin, we fought our way back through the aisle together, to the front row, where Kevin was still waiting for us.

Kevin was baptized three weeks later. All of our friends packed the front row. When he came up from the water, we leapt to our feet and cheered.

In May, the semester ended and we went our separate ways. I went on a string of mission trips and then home to Baltimore. Kevin returned to Taiwan.

September brought new class schedules, and with those, new routines. It was almost a month before I ran into Kevin. We passed each other across the library. He was going in. I was going out. I asked him how his summer was. He gave me minimal details because he was running late for his next class. I promised we would get together soon and catch up, and he agreed. But the waves of busyness only grew in intensity, pushing thoughts of Kevin further from the forefront of my mind.

On a Wednesday in February, I decided to skip a class and take an early lunch. I entered the cafeteria and saw Kevin, sitting at a table alone. Unaware of how long it had been since we’d spoken, I bounded over to him with great enthusiasm. Pulling up the chair next to him, I tried to pick up where we’d left off. I asked about his family and his winter break. I asked what classes he was taking and how his roommate was.

He gave me nothing in return. His answers were cold and clipped. “Fine. Okay. Organic Chemistry. He’s fine.”

Sensing there was an unspoken problem between us, I asked him, “What’s wrong? You seem angry.”

For the first time, Kevin looked me in the eye. “I’m not angry,” he said. “I’m indifferent.”

I was lost.

“I was talking to my roommate about you,” Kevin continued. “He said the only reason you cared about me was to get me saved. He said that I was just some kind of prize to you. That all I am is a notch on your belt.”

My heart froze and ached with pain. My mind raced back, recounting not just my relationship with Kevin, but all the times I’d reveled in the thrill of the chase.

 

When I was a kid, I use to hunt for crayfish in the creek behind my house. There was this spot where the creek was dammed and a large wooden bridge crossed over it. My friends and I would climb down the bank, under the bridge, and move rocks for hours, searching for bubbles. We knew when we saw bubbles in the water, we’d found them.

We each had our own fishing implements. Gordon swore by a lasso he’d fashioned at the end of a stick. He’d drop the string into the bubbles and swivel it around until he got one. In contrast, Mark used tweezers he’d “borrowed” from his mom’s make up bag. He’d pinch and yank, pinch and yank until he came up with one in the metal fingers. Then he’d return the tweezers before his mom found out. Me, I was all about simplicity – Duct taped tooth picks.  I’d build a staff out of five or six and stab at the bubbles until one of the crayfish grew irritated enough to grab hold.

Like I said, catching the finger length monsters was fun. We’d hold our prey up in triumph, declaring our freshest catch to be the best of the batch. We’d compare sizes and speeds, placing them on the bridge, laughing and pointing as they tried to escape. We’d stare into their beady, black eyes, wondering what they thought of their new masters. And then we’d put our new pets in our buckets and take them home. That’s when the hard part began.

We each had different ways of caring for our herd. Gordon kept a massive aquarium full of pet shop rocks and dishes of water in his room. At night the rocks glowed neon colors under the illumination of the black light in the hood. There was also a toy in the middle of the tank that Gordon would occasionally change out. Sometimes it was a pirate ship. Other times it was a treasure chest. He kept it fresh.

Mark kept a large, red cooler in his basement. He filled it with leaves, grass, and of course, water. Mark’s water was different from Gordon’s though. Mark went to the trouble of bringing buckets up from the creek. He believed leaves and grass were what crayfish ate. He claimed his red cooler marsh to be the perfect habitat, just like the home they’d left.

I chose to keep my herd in the back yard. This decision was based mostly on my mom’s declaration that I was not, under any circumstances, to bring those things into her house. So a blue, hard plastic, wading pool it was. Like Mark, I also filled mine with water from the creek. This was not a chore for me though, as I did not live a block away from the source for the water like he did. My habitat also featured rocks like Gordon’s, but not store bought, rainbow rocks. No. My pool was filled with big, heavy rocks from under the bridge. I imagined that, when I wasn’t looking, the crayfish in my pond would jump off the rocks as I did from the diving board at the swimming pool.

Much to our surprise, none of the crayfish lasted more than a week or so. Gordon would find his lying dead in a psychedelic bed of green, blue, and orange pebbles. Mark’s would float to the top of the cooler, belly up, peacefully floating among the soggy leaves. And I would discover mine in petrified states, unmoving shells, usually next to one of the large boulders.

It seems horrific of us now, but we didn’t think much of it then. Keeping the water creatures alive wasn’t our concern. We were hunters, fishermen at heart. Our joy came from the pursuit of the untamed. It was the thrill of the chase that kept us moving.

Sometime around middle school, I matured out of the capturing of crayfish. The thrill of the chase never left me though. As a devote member of a Southern Baptist, evangelical youth group, I recaptured the excitement of the hunt by taking up the mantel “Fisher of Men.”

My passion was routinely ignited at summer camp. We’d disappear for a week to cabins in the woods. A team of college students were there on behalf of a national organization. They would fill our days with games and activities, but the magic happened at night. At night we’d sing heart pumping songs, listen to a charismatic speaker, and become overwhelmed by our need to deepen our connection with Jesus. Each year the final night was the same, it contained an impassioned plea to take the message home, to take all the excitement that had been instilled in us during the week, and share it with our friends.

In high school the camps grew in their mission focus, replacing the daily games with opportunities to share. We’d work on people’s houses during the day, painting their siding or replacing their roofs, always with a tract in our back pocket, waiting for the chance to hand it to someone and walk them through it, just as we’d practiced.

Tracts weren’t our only fishing tool. We learned other implements as well. My sophomore year for example, we were sent out into neighborhoods in teams of two, armed with packs of light bulbs. My partner and I went house to house, ringing door bells. When the home owner answered, which wasn’t often, we’d hold out the box like we’d been shown, and say, “Hi. We’re here to tell you that just as this light bulb will light your home, Jesus will light your life. Please accept these light bulbs from us as a reminder of what Jesus can do in your life. We hope to see you at church on Sunday.” At the time I was sure the uncomfortable smiles and acceptance of light bulbs I received was a solid sign that those people were going to be at church on Sunday. As my partner and I walked away, we’d pray for the family we’d just encountered.  We’d ask God to touch their hearts when they attended church that Sunday for, what we believed, would be the first time in their lives. We were blissfully unaware that the camp we were attending was in the buckle of the Bible belt.

A tool I could never fully grasp, that my church friends loved, were Chick Tracts. These were small comics that told the story of a person who was on their way to hell. They were always filled with drama. The main character was a murderer destined for the electric chair, or a lying lawyer, or a terrible truck driver who was mean to people in diners. The tracts always ended the same, with an explanation that it didn’t matter how bad the person was, if they’d repent of their sins and confess that Jesus was their Lord and Savior, then they would be accepted into heaven. To this day, I’m not sure why, but I was never comfortable with the small comics. I loved reading them when my mom took me to the Baptist book store, but I could never give them out. Like Gordon’s crayfish lasso, they just weren’t a tool I could master.

The tool most effective in my hand, my toothpicks and Duct tape, was food. I could get my friends to church if food was offered. I tripled the size of my high school youth group by inviting guys to Wednesday night dinner after football practice. Then over the summer there were Friday night pizza parties in the Youth House – a small home next to the church that had been stocked with a great stereo, comfy couches, as well as ping-pong and pool tables. No self-respecting high school boy turns down free pizza, sitting on a couch with girls, and ping-pong. It was a stick they couldn’t help but grab.

I was so aggressive in my pursuit of my lost friends that it became what I was known for. A week before graduation, it was a tradition that the juniors threw a party for the soon-to-be-departing seniors. A major feature of the party was a play, in which the juniors made fun of the seniors. The most popular seniors were featured briefly with a line or two in the play. Most of my classmates were lumped into groups of stereo-types, but I was awarded a position in the play as a reoccurring character. At the end of multiple scenes, a junior portraying me came onto the stage and asked all the other characters if they wanted to come to church. My classmates howled. I beamed with pride.

 

“I was talking to my roommate about you,” Kevin said. “He said the only reason you cared about me was to get me saved. He said that I was just some kind of prize to you. That all I am is a notch on your belt.”

Kevin’s words stabbed me in the heart. I cursed his roommate. I cursed myself for waiting so long and being too busy. Most of all, I wondered if his words were true.  Was the person in front of me a friend or just another crayfish? Was my relationship with Kevin about Kevin, or had it always been about me? On that Sunday, had it been excitement of Kevin that had driven me to jump pews, or had it been the thrill of the chase?

I assured Kevin that his roommate was wrong. I may have even called his roommate “a stupid liar.” I explained that I’d been busy, that classes last semester were crazy, that I’d needed to focus on homework. And after my excuses, I apologized for being a bad friend. Kevin forgave me, and we had a great four months together. Routine lunches, racquet ball games, and late night study sessions resumed. Eventually the sudden questions about faith and life with Christ resumed. After a few months, I forgot about the wounds his words had inflamed.

It was a tearful parting in May when Kevin left to finish his studies in Taiwan and care for his aging father. We hugged and promised to write.  We swore we would remain friends across the ocean, but neither of us sent a letter. I didn’t see him again for two years.

It was June, and I was traveling with a choir to Taiwan for a two week long mission trip. We were singing and giving university students the opportunity to practice conversational English. I was shocked that Kevin’s email address hadn’t changed.

We met for dinner in Taipei. He was dressed in a pink, silk shirt, flowing khakis, and sharp, leather sandals. I didn’t realize how strikingly handsome he was until I saw him at home. He towered above everyone in the restaurant. People looked up at him in awe as he walked by them.

He brought three friends with him to the dinner. They were all equally as tall, and well-manicured. I felt dumpy and uncultured next to them. They ordered large platters of expensive food and laughed loudly together in Chinese. Occasionally, Kevin would look over and translate for me. I asked about his pre-medical studies. He told me he’d given that up and was a full time model now, all his friends at the table were models as well. I asked about his father. He explained his dad was fine and back to work again. We talked about his life in Taipei and as a model. We talked about what he missed about the States and how he hoped to move to New York soon. Finally, at the end of dinner, I gained the courage to ask him about his faith.

“Are you attending a church?” I asked timidly.

He looked at me with surprise, then gave me a warm smile. He rubbed my back and said, “No. No. That was just a passing thing.” I decided not to press. I finished dinner mostly in silence, watching him laugh with his friends. Kevin and I never spoke again.

When I think back on my relationship with Kevin, I can’t help but wonder if things would have ended differently had I focused less on the catch and more on creating a better habitat for him than just a plastic, blue wading pool.

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