Taking the New Evangelisation to the Streets
Lucy Mackain-Bremner FAITH MAGAZINE May-June 2013
Lucy Mackain-Bremner, chaplaincy co-ordinator to Leweston School in Dorset and a graduate of the Emmanuel School of Mission in Rome, gives an insight into the reality of modern street evangelisation. “Always be prepared to give an account of the Hope that is in you” 1Pt 3:15
I was walking down a busy street and a young man stopped me and asked me: “What’s the joke? Why are you smiling?” Somewhat taken by surprise, unthinkingly I replied as honestly as I could: “Because I love Jesus.”
My voice must not have been as bold as my heart, though, because he didn’t hear what I said, so I had to repeat it more loudly, with an even bigger smile: “Because I love Jesus!”
And he said, “Oh, me too. I’m Muslim.” He was on his way to run a community youth club but he stopped and we spoke for a while. I ended with giving him a Miraculous Medal (of Our Lady) and he took it saying: “Thank you! We really honour Mary too, you know, because she’s the mother of Jesus.” He said I was his sister and then we parted.
Through this little encounter the Lord showed me how He can and will use you in the most beautiful and personal ways. If you really desire to make His name known, He expects nothing from you other than to be yourself, to be how He created you and calls you to be. We are created to know and love God and are forever looking to do this better and more deeply, but to truly fulfil our human dignity we must evangelise.
To make God known and loved by others – this is the loving work of evangelisation, a commission we all received through our Baptism. But how do we make this a reality?
Catholic Street Evangelisation in 2013
There is a growing generation of people who have never even sought to cross the threshold of a church, who hold their own ideas of truth and accountability and whose opinion of Catholic priests stretches no further than media scandal. The question is how to reach them. The answer is simple: street evangelisation.
I’m not talking about preaching repentance from a soap box or holding up placards saying THE END IS NIGH. In 2006 someone was given an Asbo for doing just that on Oxford Street. I’m talking about Catholic street evangelisation, something I came across three years ago on a postgraduate gap year and which I’ve been doing ever since.
“It’s important not to go with an agenda. Just listen and love.” That was the central teaching I heard before going out on to the streets for the first time, and it’s something I’ve tried to remember deep in my heart. I held onto this and tried to understand how to do it as we set up. Half of us were singing in a choir with drums and guitar and the other half split into pairs intent upon chatting with anyone who would stop to listen.
We were a group of 20 students at a mission school in Rome and by taking to the streets each week to speak and pray with the people we met, we put into practice what we learnt from the great Catechism of the Catholic Church and various encyclicals on mission and love: to listen and to love.
We went for one hour only and in that time people would have the most amazing conversations. You can meet the world on the streets of Rome and, given the chance, people just need someone to listen to them. We prayed individually for every single person we met, sometimes with them! In a particular moment of action, I remember approaching two middle-aged British tourists who appeared to be sisters. One seemed sort of interested in what we were doing; the other was a bit embarrassed and wanted to leave. So as they were wandering on I asked if there was anything they would like me to pray for and one immediately burst into tears, setting her sister off, who explained: “Yes, this is what we came here looking for.”
I never fully understood their situation, but I knew the Holy Spirit had used me in that moment to touch their lives in a certain way. I left with a full heart, and a large smile.
I understand “not going with an agenda” principally to mean not setting out to preach in peoples’ faces, but I think it has a spiritual resonance that goes deeper. It means freeing yourself from being restricted by what you want to say or think you should say to anyone you meet, because you are not going to meet just anyone: you are going to meet someone, and their story is unique. You are going out to communicate God, and because we are all unique individuals God relates to each one of us uniquely. Different aspects of who God is speak to people in different ways. My favourite is “God is Love”, which means that by loving this person wholeheartedly in that moment you are giving them a taste of God. If you want to tell people how amazing God is, show them by loving them – and by havingJesus so present in you that all they see is Him.
This is from a prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman:
“Jesus, flood my soul with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that my life may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come into contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!”
Out on the streets of London every second month is a group called Nightfever, based in St Patrick’s church off Soho Square. Fifty or more young Catholic volunteers, working in and around London, come along each time to evangelise for the evening, which begins with Mass at 6pm. This is followed by a candle-lit vigil of Eucharistic Adoration until late. There is a rota of live music ministries throughout the night, so just as people are arriving in Soho dressed up to go out to bars and clubs, they come across beautifully serene music floating out of the church porch over speakers.
Some volunteers then take to the surrounding streets to speak with the people they meet, going out in pairs with large lanterns – a great way to draw attention and spark curiosity. Others are stationed at the church doors to welcome people who find their way there. People are then invited to come in and light a candle in the church, to take a few minutes out of the hustle of the city for peace and to say a prayer.
Inside, the church pews are quietly filled with people praying; light comes only from the sanctuary where, lit by candles, the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. Prayerful singing from the different choirs helps engender a breathtakingly beautiful ambience. The aim is to create an atmosphere conducive to prayer to help those who haven’t prayed in years or perhaps have never prayed before. Priests are dotted around to receive the steady queues of people moved to want sacramental forgiveness or just to talk things over.
As I sat in Adoration one evening, I witnessed a constant stream of people from the street coming in, kneeling at the front for a moment or several, writing a prayer or moving back to sit quietly in a pew. People who come in promising to stay for a couple of minutes stay much longer, soaking up the atmosphere.
A group of scantily dressed women, in their heels, tottered up the aisle to the front, each being guided to light a candle in front of Jesus in the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Little did they expect that moments later they’d be sitting in a pew sobbing into each other’s arms.
This type of street evangelisation doesn’t set itself up to know all the answers. It doesn’t judge, or condemn; it simply and powerfully offers an encounter with Christ.
So, with pockets stuffed with tea lights and solemn yet excited prayers made with my evangelisation partner, I set out into the neon glow of Soho Square, to invite people in.
No sooner had we left the church porch than we caught the eye of a young man walking quickly, by himself, hesitating at the sight of us. We simply said: “Would you like to come in?” He replied with an equally simple “Yes”, so we guided him to the front where he lit a candle and retreated thoughtfully into a pew.
Next, we approached three young men heading out to a restaurant who, initially slightly suspicious, followed us into Adoration where they knelt at the front and each solemnly wrote a prayer. As we left, one turned to me with a glowing face and said: “Thank you so much!”
The stories are endless, and we share them with each other over tomato soup in the crypt at the end of the night, everyone touched by seeing how the Lord worked that evening.
Nightfever, originating in Germany, has spread through Europe and beyond, reaching as far as Brazil and China.
3 Steps to Street Evangelisation
For this type of organised street evangelisation the practical rules are few but important. You must always go out in pairs (like the apostles), so one can pray while the other speaks. Don’t go with an agenda of conversion, and make time during the evening for your own personal prayer – keep topped up!
Here are three guiding steps for street evangelisation:
“Holiness makes mission possible.”
The principal rule of Catholic evangelisation is a personal and sacramental relationship with God. We can do nothing without Him and so must first abandon ourselves entirely to His Will. Through a faithful prayer life and regular Mass, Confession and Eucharistic Adoration we are filled with the Holy Spirit and the graces of God (even if we don’t feel that we are).
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” – Proverbs 4:23
Before we even approach the streets, during all times of evangelisation and after every conversation we must be saturated in prayer. During times on the street it has been useful to stop and to pray a simple (yet powerful) Hail Mary between encounters.
“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” – Blessed Theresa of Calcutta
Focus on the person in front of you with your whole being, be conscious of your body language and listen to them not just with your ears but with your heart and intellect also. Love them with the burning love of Jesus in that moment and feel the compassion He has for them. Meet them where they are.
“For out of the abundance of the Heart the mouth speaks.” – Mt 12:34 (also Lk 6:45)
Only then, when we are fit to burst with the love of God through prayer, and are filled with personal compassion through listening, are we able to respond.
“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” – Prov 13:3
This may seem at first to mean “don’t open your mouth”, but think what a guard does: he stands vigilant and lets pass only what is permitted. If you guard your mouth, you keep watch over what you say, letting only what is right and good – the abundance of the treasure of your heart – pass your lips.
Things to Remember
The first thing to keep in mind is the strength of personal testimony: people cannot argue with your personal experience of faith, and you are not setting out to argue people into the Church. There is a time and place for apologetics and catechesis but this first encounter is about bringing people to feel the loving touch of Christ. Catechesis can follow. When someone hears how the Lord has worked in your life, they are receiving a powerful witness. And that helps lead the conversation away from convoluted and often unconstructive debates about Church teaching.
Never lose hope if nothing “miraculous” seems to happen. We are part of a bigger picture and the Lord asks us to play our part: “One sows and another reaps” (Jn 4:37).
Be yourself. We are given all the tools we need to evangelise in our Baptism. When responding to the questions of other people, you don’t need to tie yourself up in knots thinking of elaborate answers when truth is the pearl of great price that people are drawn to search for.
“Perfect love casts our fear” (1 Jn 4:18). If you are afraid, anxious or embarrassed, go to the source of perfect love, the Eucharist, to ask for help. Then, once you have received this love, cast out the fear, awkwardness and anxiety in the people you meet by loving them with the same love you have received.
Evangelisation is the first step; catechesis, commitment and deeper formation follow. Don’t expect someone you’ve just met to accept everything at once. And remember that it’s not your responsibility at that moment to explain everything!
Use appropriate vocabulary. To use words that people don’t understand, like transubstantiation, consecration, sinfulness and repentance, is creating barriers not breaking them down. Likewise, bear in mind that simpler words have been warped through a lack of understanding in the media. For example, the word “Church” can mean many different things to different people. Depending on who they are, it can be a trigger word for all sorts of emotional reactions.
Sometimes the best way of defining something is by relating it to your personal experience. For example, you might explain what it means to you to be a member of the Church, why you choose to be part of the Church, why you love the Church. By doing that, rather than attempting a theological definition that some may not be ready for, you can communicate a far clearer picture of what the Church is. That is what I mean by meeting someone where they are.
The Fruits are His
We evangelise not to see the difference but to make the difference. We have no idea what seeds are being planted at those times when we think everything is going wrong. Evangelisation is not a numbers game; if you arrange an event and four people come – praise the Lord! He has handpicked these four souls and sent them to you. We give to God, and His are the fruits. Wonderfully, He quite often shares them for our own good.
“Give, and it will be given to you; a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.” – Lk 6:38
Evangelising what I spend my weekends and holidays doing, because I love it! I never thought anything could be as great as receiving the love of God, but giving it to other people and seeing them fall in love with God too is the most incredible thing to be part of.
A fellow missionary said to me once: “You always get more than you give, don’t you?”
Emmanuel School of Mission
“Become who you are and you will set the world on fire.”
Based in Rome, a 10-minute walk from St Peter’s, lies the Emmanuel School of Mission, a school dedicated to the formation of young Catholics and offering a transformative nine-month course. Each year the school accepts the applications of 20 young adults from across the world, aged between 18 and 35, and immerses them in a world of Scripture, Eucharistic Adoration, theological study, international mission and works of compassion.
In my year there was a German chef, a French music teacher, a Coptic Catholic Egyptian, a Lithuanian gospel singer, a Brazilian teenager studying languages, a Scottish gamekeeper and an English nurse from Bournemouth, to name but a few. Despite our extraordinary differences, we found very quickly a commonality rooted in Faith. Through the sacraments we were spiritually connected, and knowing this enriched our relationships in a unique way and deeply united us as brothers and sisters within a matter of months.
I lived most of the time outside my comfort zone and in return received an enormous heart for mission, a profound understanding of the Holy Spirit acting in my life, and an insatiable appetite to let the Lord and Our Lady use me in whatever way they see fit. I cannot recommend this year enough for any young Catholic who feels a niggling curiosity,
a searching desire or an outright calling to deepen and understand the Faith that has been given to them. If you’d like to find out more about the Emmanuel School of Mission, there’s lots of useful information at www.esm-rome.com.
The Emmanuel Community is a Catholic community of priests, together with consecrated and lay faithful, across the world dedicated to a life of Eucharistic Adoration, works of compassion, and Evangelisation in their daily life and relationships. If you would like any more information please don’t hesitate to contact Lucy Mackain-Bremner by emailing [email protected]