A little while ago, I mentioned the St. Paul Street Evangelization project on the blog. SPSE is trying put a Catholic presence in the public square that opens the door to dialogue. They’re currently doing a fundraiser on IndieGoGo.
Since apologetics and arguments are basically catnip to me, I contacted Steve Dawson to ask some questions about the project. I’ve divvied the Q&A up into two parts: the first is focused on a big picture view of the project, the second has more to do the specific way SPSE answers questions.
Can you give a precis of your project for the readers?
After I recognized that we needed to convert the culture — and I felt called to that during pro-life work, [as] I kept telling people that we needed to convert the culture in order to put an end to abortion — I would ask my friends and my family, “When was the last time you were out somewhere, and somebody tried to publically evangelize to you? In public, when was the last time someone tried to share the Catholic faith with you?” Across the board, I don’t think I met a single person to whom this had ever happened. I felt that that was a problem, and that we could do something along those lines.
I prayed about it, and I had this idea to set up a sign, out in public, and just allow people to come to us. With a couple of friends of mine, we just sat down and chatted about the sign, and what kind of literature we should have, and we just tried it.
The goal is to respond to the mandate of Jesus, and to take the Gospel to all nations — meaning, starting with our local area, to take our Catholic faith to the streets, but to do so in a non-confrontational way, where we just allow the Holy Spirit to bring the people to us that He wants us to speak to. That way, the people we talk to actually want to talk to us. It works great.
We find a high pedestrian traffic area, where lots of people walk by. We set up, we start praying the rosary, and we’ll just sit there, and pray at first. Generally, people will start coming right away, at least within a half-hour. But if it’s slow, and people are coming close enough and looking, we’ll offer them a rosary. If they stop, and start talking to us, that’s great.
What we’re doing is speaking to people about the faith, we’re meeting them where they’re at. People are asking questions, people are asking for prayers. We’re bringing people back into the faith who have fallen away, we’re having good conversations with Protestants about misconceptions that they have about the faith. At the very minimum, we can usually convince a Protestant who used to think that Catholics were not Christian that we actually are Christian.
Basically, the vision here is to spread across the country, to help local groups get started and to provide tools and resources for them so that they can effectively use this method, that has worked so well for us, in their local area.
We’re expanding beyond our wildest dreams. There has been interest elsewhere. There’s already a group in Detroit — they’ve been going out, and have been successful. Our own local Portland team is growing and growing exponentially. We just had 20 people out there last weekend. The Dominicans are helping out. Other priests are getting involved and want to offer sidewalk confessions. Fresno, California is starting up, Glenn Falls in New York started on Wednesday, and then we are working with people in Connecticut, St. Louis, Denver, the United Kingdom. It’s spreading all throughout the country, and in a short period of time.
What do you think makes for a productive conversation?
There has to be some back and forth, because you have to understand where the person’s coming from. They need to speak, but they also need to stop and listen for them to be able to understand what you’re saying. I know a conversation’s productive when there’s back and forth, where there’s patience on both [sides]. It’s friendly, it’s charitable.
A productive conversation moves — I don’t know if that makes sense — but it moves in a direction. It doesn’t stay, going over the same things over and over again. Sometimes it seems like a person is just not listening. What you’re saying is just not getting through, they keep saying the same things over and over again, and, to me, that is just an unproductive conversation. We’re not getting anywhere.
I always start the conversations with friendliness, with charity, with love. I’m very friendly, jovial. I don’t do it on purpose, that’s just the type of person I am, and it immediately lowers defenses more than to attack them. A lot of times they’ll be jovial back. That right there can make for a good conversation, a friendly conversation. When we get into the meat of the conversation, so long as there’s respect, and back-and-forth, and listening, charity, patience — that makes a good conversation.
Have you learned anything from this ministry that you would like to pass on to people having conversations with non-Catholic family and friends?
I’ve learned the necessity for patience. I’m not naturally a patient person. When I’m in a conversation, I think what I’m saying sounds reasonable. I find very rational the arguments that I’m giving. For me, when someone is just not being rational — when they’re saying things that are really irrational — I have a tendency to not be patient. So patience is so important, and I’ve learned that.
Also, charity. Just love the person you’re speaking to. They can tell if you’re just trying to win an argument, and whatever you say will not be effective. You have to be charitable, patient, and willing to listen. I’d say those are the most important things.