Meeting Jesus at The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


- Jeff Gentry

One of the blessings of being a lay church member – a role I often suck at by the way – is that people don’t know that I was trained to be a preacher. So when I introduce Triangle to a corporate group or extend an emotional connection beyond a podium I know what I’m doing.

That’s why I walked into an effective communication training at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with a tree on my shoulder. The instructor, who was an acting and voice coach from Cambridge, Mass put my fellow trainees through their paces. She clapped her hands to teach pacing to one speaker and worked with a skilled colleague of mine on presence and voice modulation. The trainers methods were engaging and, from my perspective anyway, highly annoying. I wasn’t about to let her push me into feigned extraversion by pretending to enter a room like an opera singer or extending my lower register by moaning while pretending to hoop a hula.

When I respect a teacher, like I did this one, I maintain strong eye contact. I’m pretty sure sitting up front and eyeballing the teacher raised my college GPA by a half point. In retrospect I’m almost certain that my eyes gave me away.

When I walked out to the spot and squared to the audience I knew my points, punched the stories, and was confident of the kill. The instructor complimented my eye contact (told you it matters), noted my ability to build rapport, and then broke me down.

“Your presentation was strong and your content was compelling,” she confirmed, “but I did not feel like you made an emotional connection with the audience.” As a remedy she instructed me to give the same talk, but to stop after every line and say “I love you.”

At that moment I desperately longed to play a diva or pretend hula hoop. But, sensing the wisdom in her instruction, I squared to the audience and started my talk.

“We all want people with disabilities to enjoy more independent, dignified lives in our community.

I love you.

But because people with disabilities are four to ten times more likely than their nondisabled peers to be sexually or physically assaulted,

I love you.

Our fellow citizens often stay at home instead of walking down main street,

I love you.

 And choose the apparent safety of a day program instead of a career in the community.

I love you.

I don’t know how I finished the talk without coming undone. Somehow, on the lavish campus of a public health foundation just off the Jersey Turnpike, I played the role of Peter and an acting instructor embodied Jesus.

John 22:15 - Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

That was the most affective preaching lesson I have ever had. Whether I continue as a shitty layman or once again wrap myself in the mantle of a failing preacher I pray that this lesson will guide my way. 

Jeff Gentry is a husband, father of two and a jaded optimist who lives in Beverly, MA. He is a former bi-vocational minister and dedicated Episcopal layman who assists people with disabilities as they pursue more independent, dignified lives.