Bobby Doran is not exactly your typical evangelist. He spends most of his time poking people with sharp objects for a living. Ink, blood, rubber gloves—and a smile. Doran is an artist at The Tattoo Shop in Forth Worth, Texas, and recently garnered headlines by becoming the latest record holder for 30 hours of continuous tattooing.
Even though you won’t find his vocation listed in a seminary course catalog, Doran considers tattooing his ministry. “The church for years has looked at tattoos as a bad thing. We are trying to show a different side of it,” he told Knight Ridder News Service. “Ninety percent of the people who walk into a tattoo shop will never walk into a church. So if we can be the only church that they see, well, that’s good.”
Doran is no high-pressure preacher. “I don’t force anything down anybody’s throat, but when God says talk to them, I talk to them,” he said. His wife Tanya reported, “We’ve had people break down and cry and give themselves up to God. If it happens, it happens.”
Doran’s world record reminded me of a story I heard recently from the Rev. Jim Smith, pastor of St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Amarillo, Texas. It seems that a few years ago, Smith found himself in an elevator with an exotic couple. The young man’s hair was spiked, his sleeveless shirt displayed his ink-colored arms, and his eyebrow and earlobes were pierced. Her tattoos and piercings were displayed through her less-than-modest leather and denim outfit.
On the other side of the elevator stood Smith in his blue blazer, striped tie, and white starched shirt. He was, after all, on his way to chair the board meeting of a conservative evangelical ministry within the United Methodist Church.
In order to break the awkward silence, Smith said aloud, “Well, I don’t suppose we are going to the same meeting.” That sparked a laugh and began the conversation between the buttoned-down preacher and the inked-up couple. It turns out that they were at the hotel for the Old School Reunion—a tattoo artist convention. The couple even invited the pastor to check it out for himself; he thanked them for the invitation and went off to his meeting.
After the board meeting, Jim was invited by Dr. Maxie Dunnam, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, to grab a cup of coffee. Smith told Dunnam that he had already been invited to an event at the hotel.
“To what?” asked Dunnam. “To the Old School Reunion,” Smith responded. The two of them scooted through the hotel in their business suits looking around for the tattoo convention. When they found the registration desk, they were greeted by an older gentleman covered in ink. He recognized that the two men were obviously not there to get a touch up on their dragon tattoos.
Bedecked in a sleeveless T-shirt, black leather vest, and rings wobbling off his earlobes, the man turned out to be the head of the convention and invited Dunnam and Smith to look around as his guests. Assuming the pair knew little about tattoos, he held out his right arm and showed the two visitors a picture of Jesus ascending into heaven. They both stared in amazement at the inked forearm.
Unsure if his new friends recognized the figure on his arm, the man said, “Jesus was the son of God. His Father sent him into the world to be our savior. He died on the cross to forgive our sins and was raised from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is praying for you.” He then winsomely asked his two guests, “Have you ever heard this story before?”
The two ministers had just heard the most succinct presentation of the gospel ever. When they confessed they were Methodist preachers, the tattooed man shouted, “Praise God! You’re my brothers!” He proceeded to hug his new friends right in the middle of the convention.
“That was the first time in my life I’ve been hugged by a man in a leather vest and earrings,” Smith said. The three of them went from booth to booth as the man told his tattooed colleagues to “meet my two brothers.” Pierced ears. Crew cuts. Leather vests. Navy blazers. Sleeveless T-shirts. White starched shirts. Tattoos. Neckties. Two worlds collided and the grace of God settled in some unpredictable directions.[Steve Beard is the founder of Thunderstruck.org and the editor of Good News magazine.]