Religious, school and business leaders in two Texas cities were stunned to learn that the mystery guest they were scheduled to meet was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather” when the 32-year-old billionaire walked through the door at the World Cup Café in Waco, said Aaron Zimmerman, an Episcopal priest there.
Zimmerman and others invited to the Jan. 18 gatherings — the other was in nearby West — said they were equally astonished when Zuckerberg explained he came to ask questions and listen, not to give speeches.
“The clergy spoke 90 percent of the time,” Zimmerman said of the Waco gathering attended exclusively by ministers. “That impressed me a lot.”
It probably wouldn’t have come as so much of a surprise had Zimmerman, rector at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Waco, and others present known in advance that Zuckerberg was the mystery dignitary they had been invited to meet.
That would have given them time to see on Facebook that Zuckerberg has embarked on a “Year of Travel” in which he will visit 30 states in 2017 where he has not been before.
“Every year, I take on a personal challenge to learn new things and grow outside my work,” he said on the travel page. “My hope for this challenge is to get out and talk to more people about how they’re living, working and thinking about the future.”
In West, where the first of the two meetings were held, Zuckerberg gathered with church, school and business leaders.
“I thought he would give a speech promoting a charity or some technological innovation,” said John Crowder, pastor at First Baptist Church in West.
Instead, Zuckerberg spoke for about 60 seconds and then started asking questions.
“He wanted to hear from us,” Crowder said.
Zuckerberg asked about the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion that devastated the city and how the community has recovered.
He was especially interested in learning about the role churches have played in that recovery, Crowder said. The guest also was curious about how congregations of different denominations worked together.
“We got to tell him that right after the explosion, people in town just automatically turned to the church for help,” Crowder said. “They knew that was the place they could go and that is the role the church plays — at least in a small town.”
Zuckerberg also was curious about how churches maintain a healthy balance between internal and external ministries.
“He was interested in how much the church focuses on what he called ‘religion’ and how much it focuses on what he called ‘community service,’” Crowder said. “That was actually not a bad question for churches to consider asking themselves from time to time.”
The conversation in West then switched to business, with several questions covering the local economy and dominant industries.
Zuckerberg quizzed educators about the challenges facing schools.
“He shared with them that one of his goals is to get the internet into parts of the world that currently don’t have access to it, primarily for the purpose of education,” Crowder said.
On Facebook, the West Independent School District said its representatives shared about gains it has made in personalized and individualized learning and about its STEM designation.
“We even brainstormed ways to help with internet access for our students in the far corners of our school district,” the district said.
Later that day in Waco, Zuckerberg’s meeting with clergy covered religious trends. He wanted to know how churches go about forming community.
Zimmerman said he explained there is a larger community — the big group that worships together — that connects believers to God. Then smaller groups connect people to each other.
That’s “how we form community,.” Zimmerman told Zuckerberg.
Zimmerman said he left the meeting assured that the owner of Facebook seems to be trying to do the right things from a place of humility.
“I was impressed with someone who could have walked into the room like he owned the place,” he said. “Not him. He was wearing his trademark hoodie and jeans.”