St. Paul Street Evangelization brings the Gospel to the masses.
Ed Graveline had a gun pointed at his head. The 20-year-old had been beaten “to a pulp” by robbers and forced to open the safe at a Los Angeles restaurant where he was working.
“They said they were going to kill me unless I opened the safe, which I did not know the combination to,” Graveline said of the incident, which occurred some 44 years ago. “I prayed to God and said an Act of Contrition. They put the gun to my forehead and said, ‘You have one last chance to open it.'”
The former altar boy, who’d been living a desultory life, tried for another hour and couldn’t do it. Finally, all of a sudden, the safe opened.
“So when that happened, I said, ‘Wow, God, you’re real.'”
Graveline was inspired to begin finding his way back to the Catholic faith, helped along by good spiritual and theological reading. He moved to Las Vegas, found a Catholic bookstore, and along with the owner started holding classes in apologetics, the art of explaining and defending the faith.
A few years ago, he saw an announcement from a Steve Dawson, who was looking for volunteers to join something he called the St. Paul Street Evangelization. Graveline called him and found out that the initiative wasn’t about apologetics so much as it was about just inviting strangers to consider Catholicism.
“In Las Vegas, I saw Protestants wearing grim reaper outfits, holding bullhorns, telling people they were going to go to hell,” Graveline said. “But Steve’s thing was a non-confrontational style. You just hand out a rosary or a miraculous medal and say ‘Here, are you Catholic?’ And that’s all.”
Started in 2012, the St. Paul Street Evangelization now has nearly 400 people involved in outreach all over the country, and several abroad as well. Dawson, who wrote Catholic Street Evangelization: Stories of Conversion and Witness, said in a recent interview that his organization has started a school to help people learn better ways of evangelizing, even if they are not involved in this particular apostolate. SPSE is also piloting a religious community called the Society of Evangelists.
Anyone who might be considering getting involved should not feel intimidated, Dawson and others say.
“Sometimes Catholics, when we think about evangelization, what we really want to do is impart to somebody in one conversation the entire contents of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in order for that to be a successful conversation,” Dawson said. “Instead of giving them such information overload, what our team is really trying to do is listen, then befriend, and then proclaim. And then make an invitation of some sort.
“The first thing is to recognize where people are at in their spiritual journey,” he continued. “If I find out somebody is an atheist or an agnostic, I want to hear about that and listen for the cues and listen for what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell me about their situation. And then speak something into their life, maybe about personal testimony. I have an experience about going through doubts myself. So I can give testimony, and I can help them like maybe take the next step closer to belief in God. Maybe that’s all God’s asking me to do.”
Graveline has found some formulas that seem to have some success with people. The street teams usually have a sandwich board sign on the ground nearby reading “Catholic Truth.”
“Sometimes people would ask, “Hey, what is Catholic truth?” he said. “I’d pray, ‘God, give me something to say to them.’ And all of a sudden I developed this little thing where I’d say, ‘Jesus lived for 33 years, right?’ I’d get them to say ‘Right’ or ‘Correct’ as many times as possible. ‘In the last three years of his life, he preached the Gospel to his apostles, right?’ … ‘But not everything is in the Bible, right?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, I guess it is.’ So I’d say, ‘Why does it say here, in the last sentence of John’s Gospel, “If everything Jesus said and did were put into a book, all the books of the world could not contain it?”‘
“And then I’d say ‘After Jesus died and rose again and spent time with his apostles and told them what to do, he ascended into heaven and then Pentecost came,'” he continued. “‘And the apostles went out and started preaching to the world. And it was all done by preaching. And there were guys who wrote down what they said. And if you read what they said, you’d find out. For example, Ignatius of Antioch, who was taught by the Apostle John, said, “Where the bishop is, there is Jesus Christ; there is the Catholic Church.” You find out that the guys who wrote those things said there was the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, you confess your sins to a priest, you baptize infants—all the things the Catholic Church does today.'”
But no matter how polished anyone’s spiel might be, Graveline is convinced that conversion depends much less on him than on the Holy Spirit.
“We don’t do any converting,” he said. “It’s the Holy Spirit that does. We plant seeds.”
For that reason, whenever he goes out to man a table, he begins the day with Mass, confession and adoration of the Eucharist.
Dawson feels he and his fellow evangelists have been able to help people in important ways. He recalls speaking with a woman who married very young and divorced very quickly. She hadn’t been to church for 50 years because a priest told her she was excommunicated.
“I said ‘Well that isn’t true. You’re not excommunicated, first of all, and secondly, you can reconcile to the Church and to God even if you have a situation,’ he said. I was able to talk to her and work with God the Holy Spirit to help her get some healing for this thing that happened to her that hurt her very much. And now she’s willing to at least go and have a conversation with her priest and her local parish to see what might be done about reconciling her to the Church. You know, she got married very young and there was a very quick marriage, and there might have been an impediment there to marriage, and the priest can help her figure that out.”
Catholics in recent history have tended to shy away from a very public proclamation of the faith, Dawson said. “When a team leader goes to recruit people from a parish he might hear ‘Oh that’s what Protestants do.’ But direct public evangelization is as old as the Gospel,” Dawson said. “In fact, the prophets of the Old Testament were street evangelists. John the Baptist was. Jesus is encountering people out on the streets. The woman at the well is a street evangelization opportunity.”
Not everyone’s conversion story is as dramatic as Graveline’s, but he’s seen enough in his street-level evangelization efforts to know that there is a lot of drama in people’s lives—and the way God is working in them. When he and his colleagues manned a table on the Las Vegas Strip, he’d see thousands of people walk past every day, with some 300 to 400 stopping to take a rosary or engage in conversation.
“We had people who came up to us saying, ‘Hey, God put you here because I was about to commit suicide.’ My friend Paul talked to a woman for an hour and a half and got her to embrace life again,” said Graveline, who has since moved to Arizona. “I got messages back from some people saying things like, ‘I didn’t know I was coming to Las Vegas to become Catholic.’”
Others have reported similar stories of people who were despondent or looking for a “sign that God loves them” or considering an abortion when they stumbled upon the SPSE table and found friendly volunteers offering free rosaries.
“We know we’re planting seeds,” said Eva Muntean, the founder of Walk for Life West Coast, who works with an SPSE team in San Francisco. “We don’t really know the outcome of our engagement.”