Street evangelization for modern times

|   By Paul Senz | OSV Newsweekly
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DENVER—When most people think about street preaching, they picture tent revivals, or the fiery Protestant minister with King James Bible in hand shouting about being saved, or the apocalyptic firebrand imploring repentance. Few likely think of the Catholic Church.

But there are a number of organizations that are specializing in just that: getting the truth of the Catholic faith out there into people’s hands and hearts on the street. Following in the footsteps of great organizations such as the Catholic Evidence Guild, newer groups have accepted the call to be street evangelizers by sharing the Gospel in everyday places.

While it may seem cliché, it is true that we all have been commanded by Jesus to go out and preach the Gospel. He told his disciples, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). The command is not simply to believe, not simply to worship, but to spread the word.

There are many different forms of street evangelization, exemplified by different Catholic organizations. In some cases, individuals set up shop in a public place to preach the Gospel and to speak of the truths of the Catholic faith. In other cases, it is more about being available to answer questions or just to talk or pray with passersby. Still other organizations are pounding the pavement, reaching out to teens or the homeless, bringing the Gospel to them, giving them somewhere safe to be for a few evenings a week. All of these follow in the footsteps of great figures from throughout Christian history.

Christ in the City

In 2009, Jonathan Reyes recognized a stark division within the Church between those who focused on evangelization and those who were dedicated to serving the poor. He decided something needed to be done to bridge this gap. Reyes wanted young people to dedicate a year or two to living in the city, serving the poor, preaching the Gospel, studying the Catholic social tradition and developing a life of prayer. This would become Christ in the City, based out of Denver. Officially begun in 2011 with 15 missionaries, Christ in the City is now in its eighth year with 27 missionaries.

“When St. John Paul II visited Denver for World Youth Day in 1993, he sparked a movement of young people who wanted to become apostles of the New Evangelization, to spread the Gospel in their everyday lives,” said André Escaleira Jr., a first-year missionary for Christ in the City. Escaleira is one of these young people.

One of the things that sets Christ in the City apart is that the missionaries live in community together. They develop strong relationships this way, with a life structured around prayer, fixated on Jesus and united in mission, purpose and identity. The missionaries are in the streets four times a week, “striving to form intentional, authentic relationships with those that we encounter,” Escaleira said. “These friendships take time to develop, because it takes time to build trust with our homeless friends on the street.” When the missionaries go out, they walk the same route each time to help foster the building of relationships. Their consistent presence helps show their dedication and love for those on the streets.

Escaleira said it is of the utmost importance to be “out there, putting our faith into action, being Christ’s hands and feet in the world.” It is so important, he said, that the Mass concludes with the charge for us to go forth and preach the Gospel.

Putting faith into action is a beautiful way to fully learn what it is they believe, he said. “It no longer becomes theoretical, but practical. As we hit the streets, we see incarnated the Lord’s love and mercy. We can’t help but realize that if we love our friends on the street as much as we do, how much more the Father must love them!”

As he walks his routes through the city searching for his friends on the street, Escaleira lives the parable of the lost sheep, leaving the 99 and going after the one, he said.

“Through our ministry, through our ‘getting out there,’ the Lord convicts us ever more in our own faith, calling us deeper.

“By going out and striving to live the Gospel in every area of our lives, we hope to lead others to Christ, who alone is the answer to every human longing,” Escaleira added. “Whether those others are our friends on the street or any of the numerous college students who come to serve with us throughout the year on mission trips, we strive to proclaim Christ to all those we meet, many of whom may not know him personally.”

It is about action, rather than merely an intellectual exercise. With the day anchored in prayer and the missionaries’ own relationships with God, everything they do throughout the day flows from that.

In addition to their work in the streets with their friends, as Escaleira calls them, Christ in the City also seeks to transform the larger culture.

“In this we hope to facilitate a conversion of hearts away from harmful, hurtful or judgmental preconceptions about those experiencing homelessness, and toward mercy, empathy and authentic Christian love,” he said. “This goal of transforming culture, along with missionary formation (forming young adults to be lifelong missionaries) and homeless outreach (knowing, loving and serving the poor), is an integral piece of Christ in the City’s mission.”

Vagabond Ministries

Vagabond Ministries was founded by Bob Lesnefsky more than 10 years ago. According to its website, its mission is to go after the lost, “not waiting for them to come to us.”

“Vagabond missionaries meet teens where they are, build relationships, mentor and introduce them to Jesus. Our world is broken, teens in poverty know this well.” Vagabond Ministries seeks to bring the joy and peace of the Gospel into the lives of these young people.

Based out of Steubenville, Ohio, Vagabond Ministries currently has five missions around the country. In addition to its headquarters, they can be found in Pittsburgh; Wichita, Kansas; and Greenville, North Carolina.

Vagabond Ministries combines, in a way, traditional street evangelization with youth ministry, reaching out specifically to troubled youth in poor areas and bringing the Gospel to them.

Andy Lesnefsky, president, has worked full-time with the organization for two years, and served as a youth minister for 15 years prior.

“A friend of mine used to say that the mark of how healthy youth ministry is in the city isn’t necessarily the number of kids you’re reaching, but if you’re reaching the kids who are furthest out, on the fringes,” Lesnefsky said. “That’s kind of become our anthem.”

Everyone at Vagabond Ministries is involved hands-on in the missionary work. Even the executive team is out there with the kids doing hands-on ministry.

This is important, according to Lesnefsky, because there isn’t really anyone who is there for these kids.

“We know that there are so many kids and neighborhoods and families that, unless we go out there, they’ll never hear the Gospel,” he said.

Lesnefsky tells a story about a young person from one of their outreach nights who walked into a church and, looking up at the illuminated cross, asked the missionaries, “Who is that?”

“He had never seen a crucifix in his life,” Lesnefsky said. “So we got to share the story of the cross with him that night. … Too often we think people who don’t know anything about Jesus are a world away, but we forget that there are plenty of people right around the corner who have no idea about Jesus,” he added.

Tiana DeLorge is a missionary with Vagabond Ministries. As a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2015, DeLorge encountered the ministry at a school fair. She thought working with inner-city teens sounded fun and challenging, so she started volunteering in the fall of 2016. “God made it very clear that it’s where he wanted me to be,” she said. She soon became a part-time employee, and now works for Vagabond Ministries full time.

Every day is different, but typically DeLorge and Will, her missionary partner, do a range of things. The most important, DeLorge said, is directly spending time with teens.

There are two main programs throughout the week. One is an outreach night, with the goal of reaching those on the peripheries. This is “the kid that’s never heard of Jesus, that doesn’t have a relationship with him, the kid that’s in a gang or been to jail, that acts up in school, that kid that most people ignore or want to write off — we want them,” DeLorge said. “We want them to come to outreach night, to have their best night of the whole week where they can hang out, have fun and just be a kid — where they can be seen, known and loved by us and our core team, and then we want to share just the most basic Gospel message with them.”

Another night each week involves a deeper dive into the Faith and the message of the Gospel. This is for teens who have been coming to Vagabond Ministries for some time; they know who Jesus is, but they want to get to know him more. The nights kick off with some praise and worship, followed by a talk or meditation focusing on a Scripture passage. After this, they split up into small discussion groups. This allows for more of an engagement with the Faith for those who are ready for it.

Additionally, Vagabond Ministries runs what they call Jesus Class, which is their Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program for teens who will be coming into the Church. They meet one day a week after school. This year, DeLorge and her cohorts are preparing three teens to be received into the Church. Part of this preparation involves Mass and brunch every Sunday, along with other teens.

“We want to be a light in the darkness and a beacon of hope in the inner city,” DeLorge said. “We firmly believe in transforming cities, one kid at a time, and we want them to know that this cycle of hopelessness that is often present in the inner city can be broken. There is always hope for them and their lives and their communities, and that hope is found firmly in Jesus Christ.”

According to DeLorge, the large majority of the teens they work with are not Catholic and don’t really know anything about the Catholic Church. In many cases, they do not even know who Jesus is, and they may not have any religious background at all.

“Through our ministry,” she said, “our hope is that each teen can come to know Christ, to know who he is, how much he loves them and how he has a great, big, beautiful plan for their life.”

Quoting St. Teresa of Calcutta, DeLorge said she is “just hoping to be ‘a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.’”

St. Paul Evangelization

“We are called to evangelize,” said Steve Dawson, founder and president of St. Paul Street Evangelization. This organization is now all over the world, with speakers and apologists seemingly everywhere answering questions, handing out medals and rosaries and prayer cards, and spreading the truth of the Gospel.

Though many people do not associate the Catholic Church with street evangelization, it was “only in the last couple hundred years or so that Catholics have forgotten how to do public evangelization,” Dawson said.

He points out that John the Baptist essentially was a street evangelist, as were the prophets of the Old Testament in many cases. Jesus preached in public constantly, including during the Sermon on the Mount. On Pentecost, the apostles went into the streets to proclaim Christ crucified and risen.
“All throughout Church history it has been a part of our tradition,” he said.

When Dawson was living in Portland, Oregon, before starting St. Paul Street Evangelization, he would ask his friends when they had last seen Catholics out evangelizing. They would invariably say that they had never seen such a thing. He knew something had to be done.

The street teams of St. Paul Street Evangelization are dedicated to responding to the mandate of Jesus to preach the Gospel to all nations by taking the Catholic faith to the streets.

“We do this in a nonconfrontational way, allowing the Holy Spirit to move in the hearts of those who witness our public Catholic presence,” the website states. “St. Paul Street Evangelization provides an avenue for you to share the Person of Jesus Christ and the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith with a hungry culture. … In order to build a civilization of love, we must first create a culture of evangelization.”

They do not see themselves as an apologetics ministry, defending the Faith from attacks. Rather, “We build bridges of trust with our communities and help people encounter Jesus Christ and his Church through listening, friendship, prayer and proclamation,” the website states.

There are more than 300 St. Paul teams across the United States and the world. Canada, Honduras, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Kingdom all host teams from St. Paul Street Evangelization.

The teams provide rosaries and strike up conversations with passersby. Street evangelization is about offering a listening ear, sharing in a conversation about Jesus Christ and praying with those who so choose.

The idea of going out into public to preach the Gospel seems like a suicide mission for many. But, Dawson said, “it’s easier than you would expect.

“You don’t have to be a perfect evangelist or a super apologist or anything like that to be successful at street evangelization,” he said.

Furthermore, it is critically important that Catholics go out and preach the Gospel. “The reason Jesus commands us to preach the Gospel is for the salvation of souls,” Dawson said.

He draws the analogy of a scientist who discovers a cure for cancer but doesn’t share it with anybody.

“We would think he is either a wicked man, or he doesn’t know what he’s got,” Dawson said. “The Gospel is the cure for eternal death, it is infinitely of more value. So if we who have the fullness of truth and the fullness of the Gospel choose to keep it to ourselves and not share it with the world, there’s some sort of problem there.

“Our world is in trouble, our world is dying,” he said. “How are we going to save it if we don’t go outside the church walls?”

By Paul Senz  |  OSV Newsweekly