The Most Interesting Canadian Pentecostal in the World
By now, the Most Interesting Man in the World is imbedded in Western (maybe global) cultural consciousness. Such is the almighty power of advertising—and the intoxicating draw of creativity. For me, it's an absolutely splendid ad campaign where the caricature of what is interesting is almost as interesting as the caricature of a man for whom the word interesting is entirely insufficient.
The advertisers tell us of a man whose specialness is beyond the mythical: "Every time he goes for a swim, dolphins appear." His personality is equally magnanimous and affective: "When it is raining, it is because he is thinking about something sad." His talents and skills are truly mind-blowing: he can speak French in Russian; he can parallel park a train. His character and social ethics are admirably counter-cultural: he is seen cradling a fox and running down a trail in the woods as he rescues the creature from the inevitability of the hunt.
Of course, this level of interesting typically translates to at least two women surrounding him whenever he feels the need to be in a dimly lit place. Usually, ironically, in the dimly lit place, you'll find him enjoying the least interesting thing in his life: a cheap bottle of Dos Equis.
Fictions like the Most Interesting Man in the World are often the perfect antidote for when we need a desperate break from the monotony of the mundane. However, in Thailand, our traveling cohort of doctoral students found something (by far) stranger than fiction: Avis Rideout.
Originally from the Canadian province of Newfoundland and a mission worker with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, Avis exudes a vibe similar to that of the Most Interesting Man in the World. Only, instead of freeing grizzly bears from the clutches of metal traps, she is clutching babies carrying HIV. Instead of vanquishing military generals in bouts of arm-wrestling, she is doing her part to arm-wrestle the devil in the name of Jesus—to put it in the Pentecostal-inclined vernacular of Christian faith and mission.
To define Avis as a charismatic figure, then, is to mean the adjective in at least two senses: 1) There is an essential, compelling, personal dynamism that demands a following (i.e. she is—extremely—interesting; for instance, during her presentation, she interrupted herself to detail for us, exactly, how she had acquired the clothes she was currently wearing). 2) Among those of us with the audacity to call ourselves Christians, she is numbered among the charismatic. In this specifically religious regard, she most likely has one leg up on the Most Interesting Man in the World. (Not that he's worried about Avis; it is said that he taught a horse how to read his email, which, obviously, would've taken a fair amount of time.)
In Chiang Mai, Avis directs Agape Home, an orphanage and school for approximately 100 children—most of whom are living with HIV. The home now employs over 50 staff, including many Thai. She founded it in 1996 on the heels of a volunteer stint as a caregiver in the HIV/AIDS wing of a government-run orphanage. A single moment with an HIV orphan named Nikki birthed a calling within Avis at the painful intersection of infants and children who have been abandoned by both circumstance and society.
Here's how she tells her own story...
Make no mistake: To watch her in a formal interview (with some guy in a suit, no less) is not remotely the same thing as actually encountering her in person. When you encounter the person who is Avis, and when she encounters you, both definitions of charismatic ooze out of her, naturally, like charm from the inexorable aura of the Most Interesting Man in the World.
For me, to be quite honest, Avis comes off slightly, if not a lot, crazy. To persist with the analogy: in a way, she might be as crazy as the Most Interesting Man in the World is cool. And both of them would undoubtedly view this characterization as an unqualified honor. (If his blood smells like cologne, I imagine her blood smells like passion.)
Notwithstanding, after you leave the presence of Avis, the question will linger and maybe haunt a little: What just happened? I mean, what just happened? Was that experience "holy crazy," or something different? Holy crazy—you know, in the vein of St. Francis of Assisi or Pope Francis of Argentina. Or perhaps the whole experience was a strange mixture, where the spiritual and psychological sourcing is inevitably intertwined and is almost indistinguishable?
Questions like Avis Rideout and her undeniable interesting-ness are prone to incite. As are her unguarded comments: "I'm going up, you're going down" (Avis, on what Christians in dialogue with Buddhists might say); "The Trinity is simple, and don't say otherwise" (Avis, on the easy-come certainty of theological understanding); "I could ice-skate at 90 years old" (Avis, on the Pentecostal idea of speaking "a word of faith" to oneself in order to create the possibility).
A friendly but scrappy conversation among our crew of visiting seminarians gathered steam as we bounced along in a songthaew on the way back to our hotel. Some of us concluded, emphatically: "She is crazy. Absolutely crazy. Like Jesus." Others protested, "No, she is much crazier than Jesus." As you might suspect, we were unable to consult Jesus himself for a ruling, or even a comment, on this very important theological-practical debate.
Nonetheless, the next day, as I was standing in line at the relatively uninteresting hotel breakfast buffet, it occurred to me: Avis is interesting because she is crazy in a manner like Jesus—after all, who gave her the scandalous idea to push unrelentingly past fixed boundaries and entrenched barriers in order to reveal a bit of the kingdom of God to the least of these? Simultaneously, she does appear crazier than Jesus, it is true, and those reasons are also interesting.
At the end of the day, Avis is crazy for good—for the sanity of love in a human story marked by insane amounts of unreconciled brokenness. Perhaps God chooses what is foolish in the world in order to shame the wise because, in part, by doing so, he can tell enormous tales of a massively interesting nature with our ordinary lives.