STAMFORD—On a cool September evening when crowds filled the streets of downtown Stamford, strolling from restaurants to theaters and through the park, more than 30 faithful from the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist went out to share a message, a message that many people had never heard and many more had forgotten—that God loved them.
They went out into the night on Saturday, just like the early disciples, who were directed by Christ. These street evangelists gave out holy candles and rosaries. They asked people if they wanted prayers, they listened to their stories about hardship and pain and they pointed them to where they could get all the answers to their problems—Jesus, who was a few blocks away, exposed in the Blessed Sacrament at St. John’s.
“It really was a powerful night,” said Father Joseph Gill, parochial vicar at the Basilica. “We are just taking Jesus at his word when he said to go out and preach the Gospel to all nations. It starts in your hometown. There are thousands of people in Stamford who may have never encountered Christ, and all we are trying to do is give them an opportunity.”
They were participating in a program called Night Vigil, when the faithful “hit the streets” and invite people to the church on Atlantic Street for an encounter with the Lord in adoration. They conducted a similar outreach last June.
The group included all ages, from 5 into their 60s, who were motivated by a deep desire to spread the Good News. Among them were teachers, homemakers, accountants, students, retirees, a nurse and a mother with her four young daughters.
During the course of the evening, they approached a few hundred strangers, some of whom turned them away or ignored them, but many others who were receptive. The evangelists offered them prayers, rosaries and candles, encouraging them to return to St. John’s to light them and pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
“In hearing their stories, it amazes me how nothing is by accident. There are no accidents with God because everything is part of his beautiful plan,” Father Gill said. “Two young Hispanic brothers said it was the anniversary of their mother’s death so they were mourning her loss and planning to go home to light a candle for her…and then they saw us giving away candles, so they took one and came to the church and stayed for a half hour. Afterwards, they said they were so grateful to have that opportunity to pray in such a beautiful church on the anniversary of their mother’s death.”
One woman far from home on a business trip wept as members of the group prayed with her, another man said he was tormented by the memory of arguing with his mother as she lay dying, and yet another was tormented by substance abuse. They reached out to everyone and anyone; some passed by, others said no thank you.
Kate Skidd of Norwalk, joined by her daughters Evangeline, 5, Amelia, 8, Lilly, 11 and Mercedes, 14, stood on the sidewalk in front of St. John’s, handing out candles and rosaries. The girls held signs that said, “Come inside, light a candle and adore the Lord!” And “How can we pray for you?” Later in the evening, the family went into the church to pray for the conversion of souls, Kate said. Her daughters had asked to take part in the Night Vigil, particularly Mercedes, who attended a Catholic summer camp and “came away with a real fire for evangelization,” her mother said.
“If you have a gift—and what better gift is there than Christianity—why shouldn’t you share it?” Mercedes said.
Diane Kremheller, an audit manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers, organized the street evangelization with Father Gill, which was inspired by a similar program called Night Fever that began in 2005 after World Youth Day in Germany.
“Throughout my life, I’ve encountered the Lord and his mercy, and the more time you spend with him in prayer and realize we don’t deserve anything—that everything is a gift—the more you really want to share that with other people,” she said. “Like St. Augustine, our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Nothing fills you except for Jesus, and you feel a sadness for other people who are not experiencing that, so you want to share it with them.”
And so she did. During the evening, she approached several dozen people and spent time telling them about Christ and listening as they shared their life stories and problems. Among them were a lonely high school student at the bus stop, several workers on their way home, a young man riding his bicycle through the park, a man suffering from substance abuse, and a mother and daughter who wanted to pray for another daughter battling mental illness and depression.
Diane, who is shy by nature, said, “You have to be bold for Christ. I’m shy, but when God is calling you to do something, he gives you guidance and the Holy Spirit is with you. So many people just need an invitation to encounter Christ. They need to know they’re loved and what you say could end up having a major impact on their lives. It is ultimately up to God.”
During his instructions to the group at the beginning of the evening, Father Gill told them to follow the example of Jesus, who never started off with a debate or argument, but simply said, “Come and see.”
“And that’s our goal—to get them to come and see,” he said. “We bring them to Jesus, and let Jesus do the work on their hearts.”
He was gratified to see so many parishioners living our their baptismal call by evangelizing.
“It helps them develop into apostles and gain the confidence to speak about their faith in public,” he said. “God uses all of us. Sometimes we think there’s nothing we can do to bring the world to Christ…but there is so much we can do.”
The parishioners who had gathered to go into the streets were firm in their faith. Joseph and Justina Okogun, who are from Nigeria, wanted to share the beauty of Catholicism and the truth of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist with others.
“It is a great joy for me to do this, because it is something I have always longed to do,” Justina said. “We are fortunate to be Catholics. Look at the world. Our only hope is Jesus Christ. There is more to life than science and technology and social media. They don’t have the solutions to the problems of life. We can only get the true answers from Jesus, and he has called us to get the message out.”
Joseph said that he didn’t want to be counted among those who, described in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, walked away from Jesus because his teaching about the Eucharist was too hard. “This is the Church where you actually receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.”
Alva Giralvo, who attends 7:30 Mass at the church, said, “I receive so I give. I want to share my love of God with others. If you follow Jesus, you should share his message. I want everybody to follow Jesus.” Dominic Vartuli said even though it is not his nature to evangelize strangers, that sometimes it’s necessary to be pushed out of your comfort zone. This was the second time that Caitlin Stote participated in Night Vigil and she said, “A lot of people asked us to pray for their intentions. Many of them had family members who were sick, and they were touched when we offered to pray for them.”
At the end of the evening, the evangelists returned to the church. The joy they felt was palatable, especially when they met the people who had accepted their invitation to go inside St. John’s and pray. They were invigorated by the success of the evening…and confident Jesus would do the rest.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about numbers,” Diane said. “You can touch one person and just show them. The best form of evangelization is showing people that God infinitely loves them for who they are, not for what they do. The Holy Spirit and God do the work. As simple as that sounds, that is what converts hearts and minds.”
Father Gill encourages other parishes, even those in non-urban areas, to adopt similar programs. He said they can do other projects, such as setting up a table at a food festival or having parishioners participate in a road race to demonstrate their faith and willingness to share their love of Christ.
“We have to start getting outside of the church building and bringing people to Jesus,” he said, “because if we just stay in our church building, no one will come.”