SAN DIEGO — Steve Dawson, founder of Saint Paul Street Evangelization, wasn’t intending to start his own international apostolate when he began handing out Miraculous Medals to strangers.
He was only trying to respond in his own way to the Church’s call for all baptized Christians to spread the Good News.
“It’s not optional,” Dawson said of evangelization, citing Paragraph 1816 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that witnessing to the faith is “necessary for salvation.”
Dawson realized that he could be doing much more, but wasn’t exactly sure what to do. Taking inspiration from St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa of Calcutta, he began purchasing and handing out Miraculous Medals as a means of evangelization, and his early efforts bore fruit.
He told The Southern Cross about an encounter with a waitress at a restaurant. He gave her a medal, which initiated a conversation; she asked what it was and he was able to explain its history.
In that brief conversation, the waitress shared that her boyfriend was Catholic. When Dawson asked if she had ever considered joining the Church, she admitted that she disagreed with its teachings on issues like abortion.
He explained the Catholic position and thought that was the end of the story. But, when he returned to the same restaurant about three months later, the waitress told him that, on the day of his previous visit, she had found out that she was pregnant and had intended to abort her unborn child. Their earlier conversation had changed her mind.
“That baby, who was born a few months later, is alive because of that simple gesture of offering the Miraculous Medal,” said Dawson, who later started regularly handing them out on the streets.
“It was experiences like that,” he said, “that woke me up to the realization that [God could use] two-minute conversations with people that I had never met before … to be channels of grace and change lives.”
His ministry continued to evolve to the point where he eventually was putting out a table in well-trafficked areas and offering passersby free rosaries, Miraculous Medals and pamphlets on the Catholic Church and its teachings.
Seeing how successful his efforts were proving to be, Dawson decided that he had created a template that others could use to spread the Gospel in their own communities.
What began in Portland, Oregon, as an activity in which he and a few friends engaged, was incorporated as a nonprofit organization the following year in Detroit, Michigan. Today, about 300 chapters comprising thousands of volunteer evangelists are active throughout the United States and in Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Japan, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Saint Paul Street Evangelization, which offers training and resources through its Web site, streetevangelization.com, was introduced to San Diego about three years ago through the efforts of Stephen Beuerle, who serves as Central San Diego Director, and James Stabile, formerly the director of development for Catholic Answers. The diocese is currently home to six street evangelization teams.
Beuerle praised the ministry as a nonconfrontational, “low-key way to discuss … and share our love of the Catholic faith.”
“We don’t step up on any soapboxes and slap the Bible or anything like that,” he said, describing a ministry that involves setting up informational tables in areas with high foot traffic, like Seaport Village, the Embarcadero and Balboa Park.
“We’re all called to evangelize,” Beuerle said. “This is one way to do it and it’s incredibly easy. …You don’t have to be an expert on the Catholic faith, which is a common misconception. As long as you have a love for the Catholic faith and you can be joyful, that’s 95 percent of it.”
He hasn’t had the experience of being challenged with many difficult questions, he said, but if the evangelists are ever stumped, they admit that they do not know the answer, ask for the questioners’ contact information and promise to get back to them with the answer.
On a typical outing, there might be one to three volunteer evangelists standing or sitting behind the table for about a two-hour stretch, Beuerle said. During that time, they might encounter between 10 and 100 people, whom they gently encourage to consider becoming Catholic or to return to the Church.
“It’s a great feeling when someone really seems open to hear about the Catholic faith and open to have a relationship with God,” Beuerle said.
Though the evangelists will occasionally hear a “snide remark” or “nasty comment” from someone walking or jogging past their tables, hostility from passersby is actually “pretty rare,” he said. As far as the number of people who convert or revert to the Catholic faith as a result of the ministry, that information is known to God alone. The street evangelists, he said, are “mainly planting seeds.”
Joseph Carton first heard about Saint Paul Street Evangelization about two years ago when he saw an announcement in the Bulletin Board section of The Southern Cross. He liked what he read, decided to stop by as an observer one Saturday morning, and appreciated “the simplicity of it, the genuineness of it.”
Carton, who returned to the Church after more than 17 years away, said his own experience is part of what inspires him “to help others understand the truth and beauty of the Catholic Church that I neglected and I know many others are neglecting.”
Kimberly Colby, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, remembers feeling “somewhat inadequate” when she took part in her first outing not long after having gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process. But she quickly learned that being an effective street evangelist doesn’t require having all the answers.
She said one surprise she has encountered in her ministry is that profound moments often come just when she starts feeling discouraged by little foot traffic or few visitors to her table. She recounted how she was packing up her materials one day and about to drive away when a man walked up and asked for a copy of every pamphlet she had with her. He told her he had walked past her table for weeks and had just decided to accept the offer of information about the Church.
Colby filed that experience away as “a gentle reminder” about the value of patience and perseverance.
“This truly is where the ‘rubber meets the road,’” she said of the ministry. “Christ calls us to evangelize, and sharing our faith outside the confines of the church walls is critical, especially in today’s increasingly secular culture. It is truly a grassroots movement, and can be done anywhere and with anyone.”
Adam Janke, co-founder of St. Paul Evangelization Ministries, will be leading a basic evangelization training on Friday, Oct. 6 (7-9 p.m.), and Saturday, Oct. 7 (8 a.m.-5 p.m.), at Mary Star of the Sea Parish. The church is located at 7669 Girard Ave., La Jolla 92037. The cost is $25/person in advance or $30 at the door. It includes a two-day workshop, morning hospitality and lunch, and evangelization materials. Call (858) 945-8550 for more information or to register.
To learn more, visit www.streetevangelization.com or contact Steve Beuerle at (619) 515-3267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.