Carrying a darling, golden-haired toddler, the woman strolled down the sidewalk next to her husband. They’d just visited a bustling farmer’s market in downtown Detroit on a warm July morning.
They had no idea what we were about to ask them.
I looked the woman in the eye and walked toward her, smiling. Her husband turned away with an expression of annoyance.
Decked out in a bright yellow T-shirts with the word “EVANGELIST” on our backs, there were close to 100 of us walking along the street that day. Fresh from Mass that morning and an intensive evangelization training session at the 2022 Saint Paul Street Evangelization national Immersion conference the day before, our task was to let the Holy Spirit guide us as we approached random strangers on the street with the saving message of the Gospel.
What? Are you serious?
Absolutely. And if the scenario above doesn’t sound like something ordinary lay Catholics would do, you only need to check out the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it and spread it … Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation.” CCC 1816
Necessary for salvation! Those are marching orders, you guys. This is our calling: To confidently share and spread the message that our relationship with God was broken and Jesus came and died for our sins to save us. In him we have life, freedom, hope and peace.
You can’t take up this mission without prayer, humility and training, but you don’t have to be genius or perfect (that’s good news for people like me.)
“Evangelization is the greatest work of mercy,” Bob Wilson, SPSE’s director of evangelization told us at the conference. “If you feed someone and they go to hell, big whoop.”
Yes, of course we have to do the corporal works of mercy — feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. We’ll be judged on exactly that, Jesus tells us, in Matthew 25. The Catholic Church has fed, clothed, educated, and cared for millions through the centuries down to the present day. Members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society throughout our parishes nationwide visit our hungry and struggling brothers and sisters. My evangelization partner and I purchased strawberries from the farmer’s market to give to the hungry people we encountered on the street (talk about an icebreaker!) So, yes, we need to attend to the physical needs of our brothers and sisters.
But AT SOME POINT we have to speak up, and sooner, rather than later, is best. We as a Catholic Church are not a social service agency. We are the People of God, entrusted with a mission to share the message of salvation. Jesus told the Apostles — and by extension, us: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15).”
In other words, we must speak the truth to a world that has largely forgotten, or has never even known, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Maybe you’re a parent or a nurse or a chef. Maybe you work for a bank or a small business or the media. Maybe you’re retired or ill or unemployed. No matter who you are or where you are, each of us shares a responsibility to proclaim the Gospel.
To. Every. Creature.
Here’s what we learned at the Saint Paul Street Evangelization conference: Arm yourselves. Pray and go to Mass before you go out to evangelize. Study Scripture. Get serious about the call to holiness. The Holy Spirit is the agent of evangelization, so listen to Him. Find common ground with the person you’re speaking with. Learn their name and use it. Ask them if you can pray for them.
“The old way was to say, ‘Oh, I’ll pray for you,’” Wilson told us. “Pray with them on the spot instead.”
If this all sounds scary, it’s not. Actually, it’s exhilarating. Remember the woman holding the toddler? Even though her husband wouldn’t have anything to do with us, she stopped to chat. I told her I was a mom of five sons and had a special place in my heart for baby boys. She smiled and kissed her son’s curls.
“Can I pray for you about anything?” I asked her.
“Cancer diagnosis,” she said softly.
“Oh! For who?”
“Oh, my goodness! Let’s pray!”
So we did, standing right there in front of the liquor store on a busy street corner as people streamed past. She thanked us, brushing away tears and we promised we’d remember her in our prayers. Her husband was beckoning her, so we didn’t have the chance to probe more deeply, to ask her if she knew Jesus and what He could do. But it wasn’t bad for our first “customer” that morning.
That night, we stood in front the very historic Old St. Mary’s Church built in 1884. Hundreds of people walked by, many of them on their way to dinner or a concert. This was our elevator speech:
“Did you know this is one of the oldest churches in the country? It’s only open one night a year and it’s tonight. Would you like to come inside and light a candle for world peace?”
If they said yes — and more than a few did — we gave them a candle and walked them to the front door of the church where they were met by our evangelization team members.
“It’s so beautiful!” one woman gasped as she walked into the gorgeous church.
Down in front, a team of volunteers prayed with the visitors, many of whom had never been in a church, much less an incredibly ornate Catholic church. A priest was there to hear confessions or counsel visitors. Musicians sang sacred hymns while other evangelization volunteers knelt and prayed for all who were there.
“People are afraid they won’t have the answers or that they’ll get in a debate,” one Saint Paul Street Evangelization team member told me. “But it’s not like that.”
Our world is hungry for Jesus and longing for the hope and peace only He can bring. To learn how you can join thousands of others across the country who want to share the Gospel, visit streetevangelization.com
Let’s do this!