Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
The long-awaited Church and New Media is out this week! Brandon Vogt managed to put together a fantastic book, even despite having me write one of the chapters.
Though the entire book is chock full of insights about how new technology is impacting the Church, there is one part that I found particularly fascinating, and not in a good way. In Chapter 2, Marcel LeJeune drops the bombshell news that students at Texas A&M University no longer say “Howdy!” when they pass one another on campus. He speculates that it has a lot to do with new technology; students are too busy texting, talking on the phone, or listening to music to even notice the people around them, so the age-old A&M greeting has been silenced.
What?! This is shocking to me. (Aggies, did you know this?!)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Texas A&M, let me explain: It’s a school with a sense of camaraderie so deep that it feels like one big family, and a lot of this revolves around the school’s many traditions. One of those traditions was the simple word “Howdy.” It was deeply embedded in the school’s culture that students would acknowledge one another with this Texas-style greeting. If you walked from one side of campus to another on a busy day, you could expect to hear that word (and say it yourself) a dozen times.
I spent my first two years of college at A&M. I ended up graduating from a different university, however, because I was a staunch atheist, and it was an almost entirely Christian school. It seemed that I had nothing in common with my classmates, and I was baffled by the religious beliefs that almost all my fellow students shared. But my time in that environment planted a seed that would influence my conversion years later—and the word Howdy had something to do with it.
Despite the fact that I was very much a misfit, I always felt a part of the A&M family. I knew that by virtue of being an Aggie I would be welcomed and accepted, even if I held beliefs that were the complete opposite of most of the other students and alumni. Some days I would walk to class feeling lonely that I didn’t know any like-minded people, loathing the bizarre religion that was so important to everyone else at this school…and then a fellow student would look me in the eyes, smile, and say “Howdy!” I’d do my best to drop my eyes to the ground and continue wallowing in my misery, but a few Howdys later my spirits would be lifted despite myself.
To greet someone is to acknowledge him as a friend; a stranger is no longer a stranger once you’ve looked one another in the eye and said hello (or, howdy, as the case may be). And that simple greeting made me feel part of the Aggie family every day, even when I was trying to pull away. It made me feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself, something good.
After I left A&M I tried to forget all about it, but I couldn’t escape my memories of that school. I never did see anything like the culture there: the sense of acceptance that extended to all students, the feeling of togetherness that was so strong and cohesive that it united people of all different backgrounds. I knew there was something special about that place, and even grudgingly admitted that it probably had something to do with Christianity, though I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
Looking back, I see what I experienced was a foretaste of the Body of Christ: the warmth, the love, the acceptance that pervaded the A&M campus came directly from its Christian roots. Though my eventual conversion to Christianity was mostly intellectual, my brief experience as an Aggie laid the groundwork for me to open my mind to the truths of the Faith years later. I remembered that there was something truly remarkable about that group of people, something you don’t find anywhere else—especially not in secular society. I had seen the beautiful things that Christianity can do when it takes over a culture.
And so when I hear that new technology has brought the era of the Howdy to an end, it concerns me. Many of the changes that have come with the online age are good: the ease of communication allows us to maintain friendships with people all over the world, and there are limitless opportunities to share the Gospel at a level never before seen. But I think what has happened at A&M is an important cautionary tale. Checking in to the online world isn’t bad, but we need to make sure we’re not simultaneously checking out of the real world around us. As many evangelization opportunities as their are online, few are more powerful than simply looking another person in the eye and saying hello.
For more thoughts along these lines, be sure to check out The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. Not only is it a great book, but editor Brandon Vogt is donating 100% of his royalties to build a computer lab in a diocese in Kenya!