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BLOOMINGTON—In 36 minutes, Steve Dawson will do something that many Catholics consider the most intimidating part of their faith, but right now the 40-year-old father of two small children is sharing the story of how a two-minute conversation with a stranger changed her life—and his—forever.
The conversation happened several years ago when Dawson first tried to bring people to God and the Catholic faith.
As part of his early evangelization efforts, he often offered strangers a blessed Miraculous Medal, following the example of St. Maximillian Kolbe who viewed the medal as a sign of grace that God could use “to bring about conversion in a person’s life.”
Sitting in a restaurant with friends, Dawson offered a medal to their young, friendly waitress, explaining its history. After the waitress accepted it, she and Dawson briefly talked about their different faith backgrounds when he asked her if she ever thought about becoming a Catholic.
“She said she had considered it because her boyfriend was Catholic, but she had problems with the doctrine, especially about abortion,” Dawson recalls. “So I gave her a short explanation about the Church’s teaching on abortion. She listened and talked with us. When we left the restaurant, I thought I’d never see her again.”
Yet, a meeting three months later led Dawson back to the same restaurant. Recognizing him, the young waitress rushed toward him.
“She was fully pregnant,” Dawson says. “She said, ‘Sit down, sit down, I have something to tell you! That day you gave me that Miraculous Medal, I found out I was pregnant. I was going to have an abortion, but I knew God sent you as a sign for me to keep my baby.’ ”
Dawson pauses before adding, “God used that experience to make me realize that in two-minute conversations with random people I had never met before, God could use those conversations to change people’s lives.”
Thirty-six minutes after sharing that life-changing story, Dawson is setting up a folding table at one of the corners of Walnut Street and Kirkwood Avenue in downtown Bloomington, the home of St. Paul Street Evangelization, a national organization he founded in 2012 with this mission: “To work with God for the conversion of the whole world to Jesus and his Church.”
With the help of Mark Hornbacher and Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate Father Ignatius Manfredonia, Dawson soon fills the table with Miraculous Medals, Catholic books, faith-related pamphlets and a rainbow-colored assortment of rosaries.
Then the three friends begin to do what many Catholics would consider intimidating, but an increasing number are embracing—at least judging from the 240 St. Paul Street Evangelization chapters that have formed across the country in the past four years, including in Bloomington, Indianapolis, Richmond and Terre Haute.
For the next two hours, they greet strangers with a smile and a polite offer of a rosary or a Miraculous Medal, all the time trying to spark one of those two-minute conversations about faith that they know can lead people to a closer relationship with God and maybe someday to the Catholic Church.
From their years of experience in street evangelization, Dawson, Hornbacher and Father Ignatius also know their efforts can lead to intriguing and even amazing encounters.
Like the Indiana University student from a Baptist background who felt he was called by the Holy Spirit to approach them, a young man who meets regularly with Hornbacher to talk about the Catholic faith.
Or the interaction with an atheist who emphatically turned down a medal and became rude before settling into a thoughtful conversation with Father Ignatius that ended 20 minutes later with the man taking a medal.
Or the woman who is the first person that Dawson greets on this steamy summer morning.
After listening to Dawson briefly explain why his Catholic faith is important to him, the woman shares her thoughts on the interaction, “I thought it was great. We notice a lot of people who come into our business who are Catholic, and they have great values. So I’ve thought about becoming Catholic.”
Dawson’s efforts in street evangelizing began with a question to his wife, Maria: “When was the last time you were out somewhere, in a public place, and a stranger tried to talk to you about the Catholic Church, tried to evangelize you?”
She had the same thought as him: Never.
That led Dawson to respond, “Why not? I mean, Jesus told us to preach the Gospel. That’s what we as Catholics are supposed to do. Evangelization is part of being Catholic.”
So four years ago, when they were living in Portland, Oregon, they made their first attempt at street evangelization, setting up a table on a Saturday at a popular outdoor market where they soon started offering free rosaries.
“It drew attention without being too obtrusive,” Dawson writes in the book, Catholic Street Evangelization. “If someone declined or ignored us, we did not push the matter. This approach also broke the ice for those who were interested but hesitant to talk to us. And of course, many people are attracted to anything that’s free, especially kids who would pull their parents toward the strings of colorful beads.
“I was amazed at how receptive and open many people were to talking about religion—especially Catholic Christianity.”
He’s equally amazed that many Catholics don’t embrace evangelization, but he also understands.
“There’s fear,” says Dawson, St. Paul’s director. “I think most people are afraid that if they don’t know all the answers to the questions, they may not be effective. Some people are afraid of what people may think of them. The other thing is there is a misconception of street evangelization. Is this a Catholic thing?”
Father Ignatius, a priest at Mother of the Redeemer Retreat Center in Bloomington, adds another reason for Catholics’ reluctance: “In the culture we grew up in, religion is a private thing. It’s not in the public square.”
Of the three friends evangelizing on the Bloomington streets this day, no one understands that fear of evangelizing more than Hornbacher, a quiet, bespectacled 35-year-old man who feels more comfortable staying by the table while Dawson and Father Ignatius freely roam the nearby streets looking for opportunities to talk with people.
“Every time I go out, there’s something to overcome, some anxiety or fear,” says Hornbacher, a member of St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington, as is Dawson. “Yet when I do it regularly every week or every other week, it becomes a joy. While I still had that anxiety, it would very quickly lead to this feeling that would lift up my heart.”
Father Ignatius adds, “This is a work of grace. It’s not about us. We’re just instruments of grace. Even the people who don’t stop, we’re giving a public witness. If someone says, ‘No thank you,’ we say, ‘OK, have a great day!’
“This is one of the greatest experiences of my priestly life. I became a priest because it’s all about loving God and loving neighbor. When you’re on the street evangelizing, you’re doing both. This is about the salvation of souls, bringing the Good News to as many people as I can. You see hearts changing.”
That friendly, non-confrontational approach connects with Indiana University students during the school year, Father Ignatius says—an approach that’s in stark contrast to a member of another faith background who sometimes uses a bullhorn to blast the young people about their sinful ways.
“They’re starting to search, they’re starting to wonder what life is all about,” Father Ignatius says about the college students. “So we do find a lot of openness. I was surprised. They’re very polite.”
That spirit of openness and politeness marks the interactions of the three friends and the strangers they greet on this summer morning.
Hornbacher offers a rosary to a young man who stops to talk. Father Ignatius disappears down the street before being seen moments later starting a conversation with two men that lasts 15 minutes. Once that meeting ends with smiles, he’s soon greeting a woman who steps out of a car, an encounter that ends 10 minutes later with more smiles.
And Dawson is a whirlwind, offering Miraculous Medals and rosaries to nearly everyone he sees. Some people politely wave him off, including a man who declines a rosary, saying he already has one because he’s Catholic. Dawson politely asks, “What’s the third Joyful Mystery?” When the man draws a blank, Dawson gives the man a pamphlet about praying the rosary. Again, another smile.
He greets people of all ages, and he seems to have a special affinity for people who are homeless—a reflection of his younger life when he lived in a car for a while before turning over a life filled with bad choices to God.
“Every person is different. Each conversation is different. That’s why we have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us,” says Dawson, who moved his organization and his family last year to Bloomington, where he previously had entered the Franciscans of the Friars community to discern a call to the priesthood. “One thing I’m trying to do more often is praying with people. That builds a relationship.”
Near the end of their two hours on the street, Dawson gives a Miraculous Medal to a man who introduces himself as “Big Al.” Before Al Carpenter leaves, Dawson and Father Ignatius share a prayer with him.
“This is the first time I’ve met him,” Carpenter says about Dawson. “He’s doing it in his own way—through caring about each other.”
Dawson says he’s trying to follow the example of Pope Francis.
“He says we can’t stay shut up in our churches,” says Dawson, whose organization provides training and materials to help people get started evangelizing. “He says we need to embrace the community.
“When you’re sharing the faith with others, you’re doing the Holy Spirit’s will. There’s no better feeling in life than working with God and knowing he’s present right there.”
Dawson looks back to the waitress who had her life changed by their encounter, an encounter that changed his life—leading him on a path that still amazes him at what God can do with the help of people who share their faith.
“When I first started doing this, I just thought I’d be planting seeds,” he says. “But we’ve seen a lot of fruit. I thought if I’d bring just one soul to God that would be enough. But we’re called to bring many souls to God. If each Catholic brought one person to the Church, imagine the impact that would have on our faith.
“I want to get across to Catholics that God can use us, but we have to put ourselves out there so God can use us. Even if you just share your story of why you love God, why you love your Church, God is going to bless that. Just do something. The more Catholics that are involved, the more light we shed.”
(For more information about St. Paul Street Evangelization, visit the website, www.streetevangelization.com, and visit the organization on Facebook.) †