October 23, 2015

To evangelize, be ‘on fire for your faith,’ deacon says

“You are important to the Church, and you are important to Jesus Christ,” Deacon Alex Jones told those gathered for an evangelization conference in the parish hall at Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis on Sept. 19. The former Pentecostal minister, who became Catholic 14 years ago, urged his audience members to demonstrate their faith “where it’s most needed—out in the community.” (Photo by Victoria Arthur)

“You are important to the Church, and you are important to Jesus Christ,” Deacon Alex Jones told those gathered for an evangelization conference in the parish hall at Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis on Sept. 19. The former Pentecostal minister, who became Catholic 14 years ago, urged his audience members to demonstrate their faith “where it’s most needed—out in the community.” (Photo by Victoria Arthur)

By Victoria Arthur (Special to The Criterion)

For Deacon Alex Jones, the road to the Catholic Church was anything but typical.

A Pentecostal minister for more than 25 years, he never dreamed he would leave his faith tradition. But in 1998, while preparing for a Bible study, he began delving into the history of Christianity, the writings of the Church fathers and the lives of the early saints. Something resonated, and he embarked on a journey that led him, his wife and more than 50 members of his Detroit congregation to become members of the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2001.

Now, he uses his charismatic style and powerful message to draw even more people into the Church.

Last month, his journey brought him to the parish center at Holy Angels Church in Indianapolis. There, he made a bold proclamation to more than 80 people attending a conference on evangelization in the African-American community.

“You are an evangelizer,” said Deacon Jones, who became a permanent deacon in the Church 10 years ago. “You don’t need a degree in theology [to spread the Gospel message]. What do you need? You need that encounter, that moment, when you decide to walk with the Lord. That moment when you say, ‘I want to love like you … forgive like you … live like you.’ It’s at that moment you become an evangelizer.”

Through what he termed “wordless witness,” a Catholic’s lifestyle and inner peace and joy should lead others to wonder, “Why are they like this?” Speaking directly to laypeople, who comprised the majority of his audience, Deacon Jones emphasized the power of ordinary encounters to plant seeds of faith.

“The help of the laity is needed because you go where the real work of evangelization is done,” Deacon Jones said during the Sept. 19 gathering. “That’s in the secular sphere—at your job, in your neighborhood, in the community center, anywhere you touch base with humanity.”

‘A culture of encounter’

This message struck a chord with Michael Alexander, a member of the Holy Angels Parish evangelization team, who later recalled the hymn, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” As a Catholic school student in Cleveland in the post-Vatican II era, he sang those lyrics at countless school Masses and tried to take the words to heart.

Since arriving in Indianapolis five years ago and getting increasingly involved in his parish, he continues to look for ways to build what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter.”

“We must share the joy of our walk with Jesus with the people we work with, the people we meet in our everyday lives,” said Alexander, who serves as parish council chairman at Holy Angels. “We can make that part of a natural, relaxed conversation in the workplace or anywhere. For me, it can be something as simple as mentioning to people how good I’m feeling lately, and all it takes is for someone to ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ ”

These days, that question takes on an added dimension. The original Holy Angels Church, built in 1903 at what is now the intersection of 28th and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets, was torn down a few years ago due to structural issues from years of weather damage. Plans are underway for a new church to be built on the same site, co-located with the school, which remains open. In the meantime, the congregation meets for Sunday Mass on the campus of nearby Marian University.

Another major change came in 2014 when it was announced that Holy Angels and St. Rita, the other predominantly African-American parish in Indianapolis, would be “linked parishes” sharing one pastor—Father Kenneth Taylor. This was among the results of the Connected in the Spirit planning process, which examined the resources of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis amid changing demographics and a diminishing number of priests.

“When I was growing up, there were two priests at every parish and a plethora of nuns educating the children,” Alexander said. “Now the dynamics have changed.”

Despite these challenges, Alexander said his parish is growing thanks in large part to what many call the “Holy Angels state of mind”—a way of building the Church through personal and inspirational one-on-one encounters. He credits the parish’s current success to tireless volunteers and committed leaders. He adds that at all parishes more must be done to energize and evangelize.

The time is ripe for that now, he said, because of the immense popularity of Pope Francis among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He called the Church a “sleeping giant” that will have limitless potential for growth if its members communicate the Gospel message passionately by word and example.

‘Remember the joy’

During his presentation, Deacon Jones emphasized that the “new evangelization” advocated by the pope must reach out to Catholics first. He used the term “cultural Catholics” to describe those who were raised in the faith, but have lost their enthusiasm for the Church and the sacraments.

“You’re either on fire for your faith or you’re not,” said Deacon Jones, who has shared his story of becoming Catholic with countless audiences and has been featured several times on EWTN’s “The Journey Home.” “You have to open your heart to the newness and the freshness of the Catholic faith, and then put that fire and new love for the Church and for Jesus Christ into the hearts of people.”

Deacon Jones stressed that there is a difference between evangelizing and proselytizing. The new evangelization, he said, is as simple as sharing one’s faith with others.

“It’s not proselytizing when you tell people that you’re Catholic and you have the fullness of faith … and ‘Would you like to come to Mass someday and see what we Catholics do?’ ” he said.

Alexander, whose wife is Baptist, appreciated that sentiment. He said that the overarching goal is not to convert those with a strong faith in another Christian tradition, but rather to reach those with weak faith or no faith at all. He and his wife often attend each other’s churches, and Alexander maintains that Catholics have much to learn from their Protestant brethren, who have been highly effective at evangelizing.

But the cradle Catholic, the child of two converts, is passionate about his faith and about sharing it with others.

“I believe that I’m part of something that is the root of all Christianity,” Alexander said. “Being a part of that makes me stronger, and it makes me more inclusive—to non-Catholics and to non-Christians.

“All of us need to go back to the basics, to remember the joy that we had at our first holy Communion or our confirmation,” he added. “And we need to act like it happened yesterday.”
 

(Victoria Arthur is a freelance writer and member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.)

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