Through simple invitation, street evangelists find powerful key in bringing people back to ChristROYAL OAK — Just three years ago, Steve Dawson took an idea and ran with it.
It was a simple idea, based on a simple concept: Spread the Gospel by going out and talking to people about it.
It was so simple, in fact, it was brilliant.
In just three short years, St. Paul Street Evangelization has gone from a seed of an idea to a multi-national evangelization apostolate with teams in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and even the Philippines. Their mission? Spread the Gospel through non-confrontational, face-to-face contact, usually with passers-by on a street corner.
“It wasn’t a plan to start a big apostolate, but we have 190 teams now around the world,” Dawson said in an interview with The Michigan Catholic, which will be broadcast on the Catholic Television Network of Detroit. “I just wanted to do some evangelization, and now we’re all over the place. It wasn’t really a plan, but here we are.”
In the past year, the Royal Oak-headquartered apostolate estimates it has reached more than 25,000 people, explicitly sharing the message of Jesus Christ with approximately 5,500. Of those, 1,650 have prayed to consecrate their lives to Christ or made a commitment to consider the Catholic Church, and 750 have entered RCIA or returned to the Church as a direct or indirect result of their encounter with the street missionaries. To put it into perspective, that’s nearly the same number of Catholics who entered the Church in all of Metro Detroit this year during the Easter Vigil.
Secret to success
It’s a remarkable success rate founder and national director Dawson attributes to the power of interpersonal conversation — combined, of course, with the grace of the Holy Spirit.
“There’s been a lot of talk in the Church for years about the New Evangelization — it might even be the new buzzword in the Church,” Dawson said. “I said, ‘Well, how do I get involved in this?’ I wasn’t so sure. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, why don’t we just go out somewhere and hand out rosaries and see what happens?’”
It’s an approach that’s resonated with volunteers across the country and beyond who are seeking concrete ways to engage in the work of evangelization without coming across as too “preachy.”Key to overcoming some of the negative stereotypes associated with “street preaching” is the group’s non-confrontational style, Dawson said. Rather than trying to “convert” anyone with loud preaching or provocative signs, evangelists simply open by offering a free rosary or miraculous medal and a question, such as “Are you Catholic?” which often leads to further conversation.
“We were amazed at the response,” said Dawson, a member of SS. Cyril and Methodius Parish in Sterling Heights. “I really thought we’d be getting into arguments and people would be yelling at us, and it was anything but that. We were seeing the grace of the Holy Spirit coming into the conversations we were having. It was so amazing; people were coming back to the Church who had fallen away for a long time, people were going to confession, people would break down and cry after giving them a rosary and listening to their problems. We were praying with people.”
Each day’s outing begins with a prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance, docility and humility. Evangelists aren’t experts in theology or apologetics, but they are trained in how to respond to common objections. And for what evangelists don’t know, they are armed with pamphlets and information to pass out to those interested.
St. Paul Street Evangelization’s astounding success has garnered the attention and praise of at least a dozen bishops around the country, including Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, who granted the group formal recognition as a “de facto” association of Christ’s faithful, in accordance with canon law, in May 2013. Its board of advisers is a veritable “who’s who” of Catholic experts and evangelists, and the number of its teams and chapters grows seemingly by the day.
A ‘bridge of trust’ back to the parish
Bob Wilson, Detroit regional director for St. Paul Street Evangelization and a parishioner of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, said there was “no way” he ever saw himself as a street evangelist until he worked up the courage to try it one day.
“It was non-confrontational; nobody got mad at me, gave me a hard time, but driving home that night I knew it was something I needed to be doing,” he said. “The hardest part is just showing up. Once you do, you’re addicted.”One of the great weaknesses of today’s average Catholic is an inability to share even the basic Gospel message, Wilson said, which has contributed greatly to the Church’s decline in recent decades.
“I can’t really put my finger on it,” he said. “We have the best possible news in the history of the world, and we don’t share it. It’s a tragedy, and we need to reverse that trend starting now.”
Wilson said when he evangelizes at Catholic parish festivals, friends often ask why he spends his time “preaching to the choir.” His response? Because the choir hasn’t gotten the message yet.
“What’s the Gospel message?” Wilson recalled asking his questioning friend. “Pretend I’m Hindu; how would you share the Gospel message with me?’ And he looked at me like I was talking a foreign language. And I said, ‘That right there is why I’m going to Catholic festivals. We don’t know how to share the basic Gospel message, and God works through that basic Gospel message.’”
While many parishes have started taking evangelization efforts more seriously with programs such as Alpha, ChristLife or Encounter, Dawson said he sees the work of apostolates such as St. Paul Street Evangelization as building a critical “bridge of trust” between the public and the parish.
“The issue is the people out in the public sphere aren’t going to have much contact with the people who are in the parish running these Encounter events, or ‘shallow entry points,’ as (Auxiliary) Bishop (Michael) Byrnes calls them,” Dawson said. “So we need to have people going out into the community making an invitation. That’s what we do well. We partner with the parishes to bring people into the church.”
Growth in an era of decline
St. Paul Street Evangelization is more than just tables on street corners. Besides a well-organized national and regional structure and plenty of online resources, the apostolate also conducts “basic evangelization training” around the country, which teaches “everyday Catholics to get out and share their faith with others,” Dawson said.
But while “basic evangelization” is something everyone is called to do, he added that “90 percent” of those who attend training seminars “want to hit the street with us, even if most of them didn’t want to be involved in street evangelization coming in.”
The anecdotes and stories from the street, posted near daily on the group’s social media pages — the apostolate has more than 211,000 followers on Facebook — also have a powerful impact on attracting volunteers, he added.
“When we can share that story with our Catholic brothers and sisters, they get motivated and say, ‘Well, maybe I can try this.’ And I always say, ‘Just come out with us and pray. Just sit over on a bench off to the side and pray for us. We need prayer warriors too,’” Dawson said. “And every single time a person says they’re just going to pray, within 20 minutes they’re talking to people just like everybody else. And they say, ‘Oh, this isn’t so hard. This is easy.’”
Dawson said the rapid spiritual decay of society means the work of evangelization is more urgent than ever, not only for the Church, whose membership is shrinking, but for individuals.
“It’s clear that our culture is dying,” he said. “Souls are at stake. And not only the souls of the world, but our own souls. We have a responsibility as Catholics to share the faith. It’s not really optional to evangelize; it’s our call by our baptism.”
More information: To learn more about St. Paul Street Evangelization, find a local team or gather resources on evangelization, visit www.streetevangelization.com. Or follow them on Facebook.
Basic evangelization training: St. Paul Street Evangelization will host basic evangelization training Aug. 14-15 at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. For more information, visit 2015basicevangelizationtraining.eventbrite.com or call (517) 455-5592 or (313) 237-4647.