As Shannon K. Evans moved to Indonesia with her husband Eric as part of their evangelical church’s mission team, she had big plans of working in an orphanage, ministering to street kids, and single-handedly stopping sex trafficking. This was in addition to the group’s general mission of leading people to Jesus and salvation.
Soon, however, Shannon’s grand intentions collided with reality, leaving her disillusioned at her lack of power to make a difference. But maybe, she wondered, this process of living out her faith wasn’t supposed to be about “power.” Jesus, after all, had come to earth as a helpless child and offered His body for crucifixion.
The epiphany Shannon experienced eventually led her to convert to Catholicism and accept a different view of following Jesus. She explores her ideas in the new book “Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World” – and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Shannon was raised by a Baptist pastor and a social worker, but in college she gravitated toward a charismatic evangelical community that promoted the idea of carrying your faith outside church walls. She met Eric through that church, and they both decided to move to Indonesia to become missionaries, due in part to a sense of obligation to convert people. But that sense of obligation came to feel like a burden when Shannon’s efforts weren’t having the effects she had envisioned. She was supposed to be the American swooping in with the answer to eternal life, yet the natives seemed unresponsive, leaving her feeling depressed.
And then came the ballet class.
As a fun way activity for the young girls in her community, Shannon watched some ballet tutorials on Youtube and began to teach them simple steps, despite being a novice herself. As a result, it was the first time Shannon experienced a “sense of actual connection with these people.” They were all beginners learning together.
In a culture that often emphasizes God’s power and strength, Shannon realized that approaching people with humility was the better option. It wasn’t just the information she had to impart to them that was important, but also what she could learn from them – and how she could connect with them.
Shannon came to see that embracing weakness gave her a better understanding of the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus. She said, “I feel like that inclination to gravitate to the power of God is prevalent wherever you go in the Christian tent. It feels good because it makes us feel like winners…I think it enables some of us to feel superior to other people who might not be looking as good and shiny from the outside. But when we look at the gospels, it’s clear that is not, ultimately, the message that Jesus was coming to present. Otherwise…He wouldn’t have come making Himself vulnerable…[We have] a God who would come from perfect glory and perfect comfort, and who would take on the physical discomforts of flesh, the grief, the pain of what it is to be human. I think that transforms us, and I think that is the model that can transform the world when we start to embody that in our relationships with those around us, the way that Jesus did.”
As her views on faith evolved, Shannon and Eric began exploring the Catholic Church. Because of their interest in social justice, they got involved in a Catholic Worker community called Day House, near their Iowa hometown: “There was a group of people who were living intentionally…among the poor and the homeless in our community, and wanting to live even more closely. So they had opened this house where people were welcome to come during the day for meals, and to shower. There was a little library, and a piano, and just things that make you feel like a human being.”
During this time, Shannon and Eric were also dealing with some challenges from their adopted son, due to trauma he had experienced during his first year of life. They had a difficult time going out to eat because they weren’t sure when the child might start acting out and they would have to leave quickly. The experience made Shannon sensitive to other families struggling to fit in with social environments.
But at Day House, Shannon didn’t suffer from any of that fear or awkwardness. Because some of the clientele suffered from mental issues, “nobody was phased by outlandish behavior,” she explained. And again, it was an example of everyone coming together, having embraced their own weakness.
Shannon said, “Every model of that kind of volunteer work that I had been a part of in the past was all about me giving to others’ needs. I’m there to serve you a meal, and then, I’ll go eat my own dinner at home. And here, we all cooked the meal together. We all sat down and ate together, and that was very representative of the spirit of the place, of believing that every human being is created in the image of God. And no matter what their circumstances, they do have something to offer other human beings.”
As Shannon and Eric further explored the Catholic faith, they chose to convert for a number of reasons. One was that Shannon felt uneasy about the view of salvation that was promoted on mission trips. She said, “[I felt] this responsibility to lead others from this side of the line to this side – and now you’re saved forever. My husband and I had a lot of conversations about it and we both, at the same time, began feeling, ‘I don’t know that that’s what we believe.’ I think that salvation is a much more mysterious and long-term journey than that. So that spurred us to begin looking into Catholic teaching, and there we found other things that we agreed with and fell in love with.”
One of those areas was the Church’s “theology of suffering.” It struck a chord with Shannon and Eric because of the trauma therapy and therapeutic parenting lessons they were going through with their son. Their prior church believed that anything could be healed if you just prayed more because healing is the will of God. That view, however, fell short when healing didn’t happen.
Shannon said, “I began to find myself tempted to feel abandoned by God, and to [ask], ‘Where are You? I tried to do this because I thought this was what You would do, Jesus. You would parent a child who has no family. You’ve got to help me out here.’ Through that journey, we came to identify with this idea that suffering doesn’t always have neat and tidy answers. Suffering is, certainly, not the fault of the person who’s going through it. It’s not an indicator that the person isn’t holy enough, or needs to pray or fast more. And I don’t feel like anybody was intentionally saying that we weren’t good enough, but we were certainly getting messages that there was more we could always do. So, finding that [idea that] suffering could be beautiful, and could lead us closer to Christ – and, more specifically, to birth compassion for our fellow human beings – that is so much of what God has shown me suffering is for. It’s for what it can birth in us to give to others.”
Ultimately, Shannon has these hopes for people who read “Embracing Weakness“: “My biggest hope is that it would open readers up to the possibility of being able to rest in God, and be able to stop striving and to stop putting pressure or expectations on themselves, and simply be in God. I think that when we do that, we are broken open and able to see how God is moving in the world around us – and that the world around us is actually really beautiful.”
(To listen to my full interview with Shannon K. Evans, click on the podcast link):