"Why y'all dressed up?" the African-American man asked me, waiting for his drink at the bar.
"We're missionaries," I said, unbuttoning the coat of my tuxedo and leaning on the bar.
"Y'all are missionaries?" he asked, his eyes wide as he sipped his martini.
"Yep." I couldn't help but grin. I looked around to see if anyone else was nearby. Nope. It was just the two of us.
A few long minutes ticked by without a word. The sound of laughter and clinking glasses in the background made the silence even more uncomfortable. I cleared my throat.
Then, after glancing around the reception hall full of black ties and long dresses, he turned back to me. "Why?" he asked, earnestly.
It was a simple question, and I knew what he was asking. Why all this — this hoopla — for a bunch of missionaries? Why the largesse? Why the fanfare?
The irony of the situation didn't escape anyone present. No one felt comfortable in those penguin suits, picking hors d'ouevres off a silver plate. This is the same question others have asked, the same one that, admittedly, haunted me.
Why would a missions organization host a black-tie event? Why go to the trouble of a charity gala? What was the point? Was it worth the extravagance?
It was called Epoch, and it lived up to its name.
The evening began with a red carpet. At the entrance, you would stop, and a photographer would take your picture. Then, you would proceed to enter the elegant Fox theater in downtown Atlanta. Upon entering, you would check in and ascend a long, winding staircase. This brought you to a reception hall, where you could bid on a number of silent auction items. After a few minutes, a man or woman dressed in black would walk towards you, offering you a refreshment or piece of shrimp on a stick.
Then, there was the international market, where you had your choice of hand-sewn purses from Africa, coffee from Land of a Thousand Hills, or a beautiful piece of jewelry.
All this came before the meal — a lavish, decadent spread on white-clothed tables in the main hall, the site of many a concert and show for the past 122 years.
I turned to the man at the bar, and after some thought, I decided to answer him. I told him about the type of people he was seeing all dressed up — that they didn't normally look like this. I told him it wasn't uncommon to find these folks living in a hut somewhere or hanging out in a rainforest, caked in mud. These were the types of people you see befriending the homeless on a street corner or hanging out with questionable characters in a dark alley. Why? Because they're missionaries; this is what they do.
Sitting at the bar long after the lavishness had concluded, I recounted the evening for him. I told him about the multiple-course meal and the emcees and live music. I shared with him about the awards — the hand-blown glass pieces made just for the event. I talked about the spoken word poet and the huge finale — a parade of people filling the auditorium with clapping and dancing and laughter. And the dessert. Oh, the dessert.
I told the man these were the types of people who work long days and late nights. I explained how they fund-raise their salaries and return home to communities and churches that rarely understand them. Then, I told him the one thing he could connect with: these were unsung heroes.
The man's eyes lit up; he started nodding. "Oh yeah," he said. "I know what you're talking about. You see, I'm a teacher." And so the connection was made. We continued the conversation, discussing politics and religion and the broken educational system in America.
The evening of October 24 was full of moments like that — weird ones that were profound in their own way.
For a room full of missionaries, some of the formalities felt a little strange. The banquet hall, the stage, the hors d'oeuvres — they all felt like a bit much. However, by the end of the evening, the discomfort had turned to familiarity, and we grew to embrace the evening for what it was — a gift. Awards were given. Toasts were made. The joy was tangible.
Throughout the whole event, a single thought kept coming to mind, amidst cheers and songs and dancing. The beauty of this thought haunted me. The evening reminded me of the story of the prodigal son and his homecoming. I envisioned an unworthy son being embraced by his father. I saw the whole town partying over a huge spread of food and drink. And the thought returned: "This is just a foretaste."
If what I read is true — and I have good reason to believe it is — then I expect the life after this one to be a celebration. I expect fanfare and lavishness. Not because of what I or you have done to earn such decadence, but because of a loving, scandalously gracious Father.
Some have likened eternity it to a wedding feast. Others to a big party or an endless concert. And as I looked around at people who were changing the world (all dressed to the nines), and I had to shake my head. All this — and it is only just a taste? It was hard to grasp. But eventually I surrendered to the thought.
I sat back and sunk deep into my chair, smiling. I looked around at my friends and heroes and thought, Yes, this is just a taste. A taste of next year, of doing this all over again — but undoubtedly bigger and better and more extravagant. A taste of a reception yet to come, when those who have labored and sacrificed so hard will finally hear the words they've been waiting for. The words that will make their struggles significant. The words that will lead to laughter and tears in the same moment. Two important words that make any pain worth it: Well done.
Yes, maybe this is just a taste. A taste of what's to come. A taste of whatever comes after, of what we were made for and long for. A taste of life as we hope it will ultimately be.
At the end of my conversation with the man at the bar, he said, "Hey! Somebody should do something like this for teachers!" I nodded and smiled. Indeed they should.