Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: "What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!" I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books, and so settle their account with God for their learning and talents entrusted to them.
--St. Francis Xavier, from a letter recently featured in the Divine Office
The saints have a way of getting our attention. Today the Church is blessed with countless laymen whom God has entrusted with "learning and talents", and yet so few take the faith to the streets. Pope Francis has even implored Catholics to go out into the world, but perhaps his call has gotten lost in the headlines. There is an abundance of Catholic books on seemingly every subject (with more published every year), and there is a dizzying number of online ministries and blogs, and yet all we see on the streets are Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and the occasional fundamentalist. Yet St. Paul, the most piercing theologian the Church has ever known, was also her most tireless street evangelist.
The great saints agree that writing is secondary to the direct care of souls. St. John Marie Vianney, the Cure of Ars, writes, "St. Francis de Sales, that great saint, would leave off writing with the letter of a word half-formed, in order to reply to an interruption." In other words, any human need, any interruption by a soul "made in the image and likeness of God" commanded his attention over the demands of his writing ministry. He still managed to write his pamphlets and books, but they were secondary to his face-to-face encounters with his fellow man.
Writing a book or managing a website can be an enjoyable and rewarding use of our time, but it can also be a time-comsuming process that only yields a small circulation among readers. I'm writing a book like everyone else (hopefully my only book), and whenever I have a block of free time I ask God, "Should I write my book, or do the street ministry?" I always get the same impression: I should walk the streets. The book will get done, but on God's schedule. In fact, there's a secret: if I walk the streets when called, the next time I sit down to write, the word pours out quick and fresh. God's grace more than compensates for the time I've "lost" writing my book. But it also goes deeper than that. The material I write is also livelier because street evangelization rekindles the sacred fountains of the Christian imagination.
There are many reasons Christians don't pursue street ministry, but there seems to be one universal reaction to the apostolate: "Be safe!" or "Be careful out there." or "That sounds dangerous." Now there are better neighborhoods to walk if you'd like, and all neighborhoods need a visible Catholic presence, but I've been walking the grittier streets for a year and I've never felt threatened. Not once. The threat seems to be in the mind. Perhaps the real threat, is walking out our front door and mixing with those we don't normally associate with. The prostitutes, the angry young men, the at-risk youth, the addicts, the ex-cons. But sometimes they are better company, more real, more compassionate, more substantial than we could ever imagine. For my part, I used to sit in academic conferences and listen to secular professors and graduate students indulge in dreamy, narcissistic "social theorizing", and think, "I actually prefer the company of my solid cons back in maximum security prison. At least they know what real life is like, what it means to love and hate and suffer and struggle."
But it's easy to see why people avoid doing street ministry. Take last night, for example. As I passed a food cart pavillion on SE 82nd, two young men jeered at me in between eating Philly cheesesteaks. They hoped they might get a rise out of me, and so they shouted louder and louder until I was gone. Then a john and a prostitute in her early twenties passed me traveling in the opposite direction. She wore an electric pink down jacket and cap, and wearily trailed the john by three yards. As I passed she gave me a sarcastic reproach, "Sorry I spit on the sidewalk." A half hour later I passed the john again, but he was alone this time. He cast his head down and avoided making eye contact again, but this time his head gave an unnatural jerk to the side as I passed, as a man flinches when a flashlight is shone in his eyes. I thought it had a spiritual significance, as though he were recoiling from Christ. Perhaps it was like the reprobate who dies and then impulsively flees from the Lord upon seeing the glory of His love.
Fifteen minutes later I saw the young prostitute by the entrance of 7/11, waiting for the next john. It's the usual hang out for prostitutes and the rare pimp. She saw my discreet wave, but just stood watching me. I couldn't read her expression. I kept looking back in the hope she would leave her post to talk, but she just watched me until I passed out of sight.
When I was near home, I passed the window of a little shop on Foster that had recently changed hands. The shop used to be called "Vice", and sold smoking paraphernalia, lingerie, lubricants and sex toys. Now it had a large poster in the window with a Latin title and symbols that seemed Catholic at first glance. I felt a twinge of hope, maybe I've got some new friends in the neighborhood! The poster had a dove and a cross and a chalice, with the title "Ordo Templi Orientis". But as I looked closer I realized the poster was merely aping Catholic imagery, and was an occultist inversion of the faith. When I got home I googled the name, and saw it was a secret esoteric society once associated with Aleister Crowley. Now this "secret society" is silly nonsense, a self-important pipe-dream of two or three lonely souls in the neighborhood, but they need prayer and sacrifice.
In fact, our cities are full of people just like the ones I met last night, and we desperately need Christians to witness to them. Our Lord's words are timeless, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few." Join St. Paul Street Evangelization, witness at Planned Parenthood every week, visit the abandoned in care facilities, or even start your own street apostolate. But get out there!