Thursday, January 8, 2015

Where are the Catholic Street Evangelists?

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!


  1. Among Catholics there is an understanding that all initiatives must be begun by the parish pastor.

    1. I'm a Catholic, and I don't share your understanding. Have you read the biographies of St. Anthony Abbot, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, St. Bernadette Soubirous, etc? If it makes you feel any better, I have the blessing and support of both my pastor and bishop.

  2. Hello Scott:

    I think all Catholic apostolate work is worthwhile, whether evangelizing by walking the streets, or evangelizing by sitting at a desk writing—that chosen will depend upon one’s situation in life—and it matters not how many are contacted, for isn't all Catholic apostolate work the Lord’s work, and isn't each first in the heart of those doing it.

    May God continue to bless you in your apostolate.

    Take care.

    David H. Lukenbill

    1. Hi David,

      I made pains to point out that it's not an either/or thing. In fact, public evangelization can actually improve/perfect one's writing ministry. The point is to discern God's will and do it.

      You wrote:
      "for isn't all Catholic apostolate work the Lord's work, and isn't each first in the heart of those doing it"

      I think that's what St. Francis Xavier is challenging. His challenge is that some think they are working for God, but they are actually working too much for themselves. Georges Bernanos, author of "Diary of a Country Priest", actually wrote a book on this subject, "The Impostor". It's a spiritual disease that all of us must contend with: to do God's will, and not our own--even if what we desire instead is worthy. Before my daughter came along, I used to spend 3-4 hours at a time doing sidewalk counseling and prayerful witness outside Planned Parenthood. One day I had enough of the ugliness, and told God, "I can't do it today. I'm done. I'm going to go out into the mountains and I'll pray and sing Gregorian chant the whole time. Surely that's good enough." But that's not what God wanted, and he made it very clear to me that I blew it, even though prayer and chant are worthy things and we need more of them. Now when I die, I'm sure God will show me who I would have touched had I gone to Planned Parenthood as he asked.

      The other point that St. Francis Xavier is making, is that there was an imbalance between the surplus of priests in Europe (especially at university), and the few priests in mission in India, Asia and elsewhere. It was a scandal, and now in our day it is a scandal that so few Catholics evangelize in person. There is an imbalance today between Catholic publications and websites and bodies on the street. I don't believe for an instant that it's God's will. Just this morning I saw four young Jehovah's Witness women going door-to-door. They have a culture of evangelization (as do Mormons). We actually have an anti-evangelistic culture in the church in the West--in many parishes you're eccentric or socially tone-deaf or "come on too strong" if you publicly witness for the faith (even in a humble, welcoming way).

      The point of the post was to prick the consciences of those educated, motivated Catholics whom God is trying to push out of their comfort zones into public evangelization. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to say more on the subject. Pax Christi.

  3. Hello Scott:

    I accept that you didn’t mean it to be either/or but that’s how it reads, and I was responding to that.

    I was a Mormon and headed up my ward’s missionary as ward mission leader for a couple years, so am well aware of the deep evangelical roots found there, but I also learned that the baptisms obtained this way were usually very shallow.

    Most devout Mormons come from Mormon families, as I did and the growth rate of Mormons generally reflects the large families typical of Mormons, more so than the evangelization.

    I agree that Catholics don’t do much evangelization in the United States, and I don’t think Jews do much either.

    Most street evangelizing is something that, in my opinion, cuts against the grain of Catholic culture as it is too high-pressure, too manipulative, too sales oriented.

    The type of street evangelization you are doing is different (actually it really isn’t evangelization as most would define it because you do not approach people but only are there if they want to approach you) only providing a visible presence on hard streets for those who need to hear and see, if they want to hear and see.

    You are not scared because you did time in a maximum security prison, and from that experience, the threats on the hard streets are virtually non-existent.

    The kind of non-verbal, unconscious body language and other cues you and I learned in our time within the nation’s maximum security prisons are what allow us to generally walk with safety on any hard streets.

    Most folks would be terrified to do what you do and therefore, be in great danger if they did, and completely ineffective on top of that because of their fear.

    This fear of working around criminals is why I wrote The Lampstand Prison Ministry: Constructed on Catholic Social Teaching & the History of the Catholic Church book which provides a way to do prison ministry and remain safe while doing it, knowing that most people in prison are dangerous and will often take advantage of the good folks trying to help them—exactly the reason people like you and I, former professional criminals—need to be doing prison ministry.

    So, I would agree with you that more Catholics should be evangelizing, but would continue to say, do so in the way that works for you.

    Take care.


    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for all of the great thoughts. I agree with your thoughts about the Mormons, I've seen several shallow, short-lived Mormon conversions. In Oregon, the Mormons have already changed tactics and no longer go door-to-door. Now they just walk the neighborhood streets and try to befriend people by doing chores and through conversation.

      You're right that most people would be scared and uncomfortable walking the streets I usually walk, and so would be ineffective evangelists (at least for a time). There are some streets in some cities that only ex-cons should evangelize (for the reasons you state). Ironically, God awakened me to this ministry while in the wealthiest part of town, and so there are very safe, comfortable streets to evangelize. But thanks for pointing out the fact that I've understated the grounds of fear.

      Obviously books, articles and online ministries are very valuable. Many Catholics can't find a deep historically-rooted presentation of the faith at their local parish, and so are greatly nourished by the written word or Catholic media. I was actually expecting someone to tease me for hypocrisy since I have a conversion blog, a street ministry blog, have done videos and am writing a book. Btw, when the books done in a few years, I'd be happy to mail you a copy. Pax Christi, Scott

  4. I am eagerly anticipating your book Scott, and will happily pay full price for support your work...take care...David