As an Evangelical college student, I once went on a mission trip to Scotland. One Saturday night our host said we were going to downtown Edinburgh, and we thought it was to see the sights.
Instead, it was to do some street preaching. When we arrived, a stout fundamentalist preacher with his even stouter wife climbed out of a beat-up car and handed us gospel tracts. Meanwhile Mrs. Preacher put on an old-fashioned sandwich board that said, “Repent the Day of the Lord is at hand!”
Up and down she marched, while Mr. Preacher harangued passers-by with his message of doom, gloom, hellfire and damnation. When the pubs let out at eleven o clock, the real fun began.
Oaths and mockery came roaring out in the unmistakable Scottish accent. Drunkards threw beer bottles at Mr. Preacher and Mrs. Preacher, who, naturally, picked them up and chucked them back.
It was a genuine experience.
The memory flooded back when I learned recently about a new Catholic apostolate called “St. Paul Street Evangelization.” Were these Catholics fierce fundamentalists like Mr. and Mrs. Preacher in Scotland? Were they angry, buttoned up traditionalists— condemning everyone for their worldly, modern ways?
Or perhaps they were angry progressives condemning everyone for not being worldly and modern enough!
St. Paul Street Evangelization was founded by Steve Dawson after converting to the Catholic faith in 2002. After his conversion, Steve spent time discerning religious life, spending 14 months with the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, before discerning his call to work for the Church as a layman.
Since then, he’s been active in various Catholic ministries and in leadership positions in the pro-life movement.
Dawson is assisted by Adam Janke. After converting to Catholicism from biblical fundamentalism, Adam obtained his BA in Theology and Catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He also obtained his Masters in Theology from Franciscan.
I spoke to Adam about St. Paul Street Evangelization, and was impressed to learn that these lay evangelists are anything but fierce fundamentalists. Approved by the church’s hierarchy, well educated in theology and apologetics, and completely up-to-date in communication techniques, they have a simple and positive plan to take the good news of Jesus Christ in the fullness of the Catholic faith out into the streets.
Their mission is an excellent example of an entrepreneurial lay apostolate, in the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council.
Here’s how it works: After receiving training from the team at St. Paul Street Evangelization, at least two Catholic evangelists choose a place in their city or town with a moderate-to-high level of pedestrian traffic. The evangelists “set up shop” with a folding table, a stand-up sign and assorted pamphlets on aspects of Catholicism, holy cards, Rosaries and Miraculous Medals.
They then invoke the Holy Spirit to guide their efforts for that day. They ask the Blessed Virgin’s intercession, so the Lord will send them the people who need to meet them.
After prayer, they simply wait for passers-by and offer the person a free rosary. The evangelizers also provide a pamphlet on how to pray the Rosary, and make an effort to engage the person in conversation with questions.
An effective opening question might be, “Are you Catholic?” as the answer provides a springboard for the conversation to open out into different topics. By asking follow-up questions, the evangelizer can discover whether a person is a practicing Catholic, fallen-away Catholic, Protestant, New Ager, atheist or agnostic.
The evangelizers are trained to remember that they are a public witness to the Catholic Church. At all times they are careful to be charitable, open to the other person and trained to be good listeners.
I spoke to Janke, and asked if the teams ever engage in religious arguments in the street.
“No,” he replied. “Evangelizers are taught not to be argumentative or combative. They should certainly defend and explain the truths of the Catholic faith, but we teach them to challenge people with questions in a spirit of sincerity and compassion. Questions help them to engage with the search for truth. Simply making statements of truth blocks that encounter.”
“What do they do if someone attacks the faith and gets aggressive?” I asked.
“Scripture says a soft answer turns away anger,” he replied. “They should remember that Jesus said those who are persecuted for His sake are blessed. God works in all situations, and they should not let a conversation they perceive as a failure get them down.”
Janke explained how Catholic street evangelization differs from similar Protestant work. The Evangelical understanding of salvation invariably leads to pressure for a decision from the person being engaged. The Catholic method is much more of a process. The non-confrontational method of evangelization is therefore much more effective and consistent with the Catholic understanding of personal faith, which is more like a journey to God than an instant conversion.
St. Paul Street Evangelizers help strengthen the faith of weak Catholics, bring back fallen away Catholics, explain Catholicism to non Catholic Christians and plant the seeds of conversion in non believers.
The growth of St. Paul Street Evangelizers has been amazing. From small beginnings they have developed training teams that visit parishes, run a blog, publish booklets and books and have branched out beyond the U.S. to the Philippines and beyond. Learn how you can be involved by going to their website here.
While St. Paul Street Evangelization reminds me of the fierce fundamentalists, it also reminds me of the fiery friars. The Franciscans and Dominicans went out into the streets in a similar way in the twelfth century, sharing the gospel with a dark and needy world.
Here are twenty-first century Catholics rolling up their sleeves, getting out of their religious comfort zone and connecting with people where they are. In doing so, they are also connecting with Pope Francis’s vision of a church that’s real and relevant — relating to souls on the streets with the eternal message of mercy.