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Connecticut parish finds people receptive when they go out on the street and invite them to church



John Burger - published on 11/04/19

"Night Vigil" takes a page from World Youth Day 2005.

A parish priest in Stamford, Connecticut, and several of his parishioners went out to the streets one evening to personally invite strangers into their church. It’s part of an effort to evangelize called Night Vigil.

Walking busy downtown streets where folks were out for a restaurant meal or shopping, parishioners on their own or walking in twos approached people with an offer to pray for them.

“Would you like to light a candle?” they might say, while holding out a long thin taper to a passerby. “It’s free.”

Takers would be invited to bring the candle to the nearby Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, which was open—unusual for a Saturday evening in the urban area.

Other parishioners asked strangers, “Is there anything you’d like us to pray for?” If people responded positively, they were likewise invited to go to St. John’s, or to leave their prayer requests with the evangelizers.

In some cases, this could lead to a bit of discussion.

After talking with a young woman for about 20 minutes, Tom, a parishioner who asked that his last name not be used, told this reporter that the woman was having a hard time. She had recently lost her fiancé, and she was angry at God.

Tom gave her a miraculous medal, and she said her grandmother had worn one. “We tried to tell her how much God loves her and he’s always waiting for her to welcome her back,” said Tom’s wife, Noelle. “We told her to just go stop in the church, and I think she will.”

“I gave her a candle and said ‘Go say a prayer. You can pray for yourself, you know?'” Tom said.

Tom, who, as a salesman, is accustomed to hearing “No,” said he just tries “to look as friendly as I can and convey that I just really care about them, even though I’m a total stranger,” he added.

Fr. Joseph Gill, the assistant pastor of St. John’s, started the sidewalk ministry after hearing about a similar effort that had grown out of World Youth Day in Germany in 2005. It was called Night Fever. Fr. Gill decided to call his effort Night Vigil, as the name Night Fever was copyrighted.

Gathering with about 30 parishioners and friends in the basement of St. John’s for pizza on a late Saturday afternoon in early September, Fr. Gill explained how the evening would work. Some people would stay in the church upstairs, praying, while others—those who felt up to it—could go out on the streets. They would bring candles and rosaries to offer and simply let people know that the church was open and they could feel free to go in, light a candle, and pray in their own way, whether they were Catholic or not.

“I’ll be at the back of the church, for anyone who wants to go to confession or just talk,” he told participants.

This was the second time the parish was conducting Night Vigil. One attendee spoke about her experience the first time. “It’s scary” to approach people at first, she confessed. She tried to empathize with people who would be on the receiving end of her pitches. “I see a Jehovah’s Witness, and I don’t want to talk to them, so I can understand,” she said.

“Many people feel shy at first, but once you do it a few times it actually starts to feel gratifying,” Fr. Gill said in an interview later. “People usually don’t react in negative ways. They’re actually very appreciative that someone comes up to them offering to pray for them.”

In fact, sometimes people will surprise you. “There were a couple of brothers who saw our missionaries holding candles and came up to them. They said that it was the first anniversary of their mother’s death and they were just going to go home to light a candle,” Fr. Gill related. “They asked for one of the candles and asked if they could light it in church.”

“John,” the street evangelist they had approached, related that one of the men told him he couldn’t believe he had met them, because it happened to be the first anniversary of his mother’s death. “So now I’m gong to go to church,” he said. “I haven’t been to church in so long.”

Meanwhile, Maria Vaszquez, a native of Spain, said that while she was evangelizing, she ran into a family who had recently come to the U.S. from Guatemala.

“They only spoke Spanish,” she said. “I asked them if they had any necessity or need, and they just opened up. … They didn’t know where the Catholic churches were. I was able to tell them where there are Spanish Masses.”

Melanie Szlucha, a lay member of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), who has been interested in apologetics work for some time, said the one-on-one evangelizing is “a little intimidating at first. It’s almost like standing at the edge of a pool.” It’s a matter of “finding your niche of how to do what feels comfortable for you and what’s effective, improving and working whatever’s happening in the moment.”

But it’s rewarding when she knows when “people see what the inside of the church is like [and] letting people know they can just sit in there and be quiet and just think,” Szlucha. “Too many times in life we don’t have quiet time, just to think about what’s going on in our life and ask God for help and just start that dialogue.”

Noelle, Tom’s wife, who has similar experience from being a pro-life sidewalk counselor outside abortion clinics, knows that a lot of people are quietly experiencing personal suffering. “When they have a lot of pain, I think they just want anyone to encounter them,” she said. “So the fact that somebody is making eye contact and listening, it’s probably something they don’t experience a whole lot.”

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