Following in the footsteps of St. Maximilian Kolbe and Mother Teresa, Steve Dawson started handing out Miraculous Medals to strangers as a way to evangelize. As a revert to the Catholic faith, Dawson knew that the answer to the problems he saw in the world was conversion.
Even though it felt odd to hand out Miraculous Medals to strangers, he squelched his natural inclinations and gave them out often. Dawson had many profound, Holy Spirit-filled encounters because of his courage, including one that saved a life.
One day, while sitting in a restaurant, he gave his waitress a Miraculous Medal and started up a conversation with her. He asked her, “Have you ever considered becoming a Catholic?” She replied, “Yes, I have. My boyfriend is Catholic, but I have problems with some of its teachings.”
She proceeded to tell Dawson that she took issue with the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion. He calmly explained to her, “From the moment of conception, you have a new human life that was created by God with an individual human soul. It’s not up for us to decide who lives and who dies, even at the earliest stage of life.”
Dawson told Catholic Digest, “What I said to her was simple, but it had a profound affect on her.” A few months later he happened to go back to the same restaurant. The waitress recognized him and told him to sit down because she had something to tell him. “She said the day I gave her the Miraculous Medal, she had just found out she was pregnant and was planning to have an abortion. She changed her mind because she knew that God had sent me to her as a sign that she should keep her baby. That baby is alive because of the simple act of offering a Miraculous Medal.”
Taking it to the streets
Dawson recognized over and over that those simple two-minute conversations with people was a way for God to bring about change in people’s lives. “I was evangelizing people in my daily life, but then I thought, Why not go out into the public and set up a table somewhere and hand out Miraculous Medals, rosaries, and answer people’s questions about the faith?”
In the summer of 2012, Dawson, his wife, and a few friends decided to do just that. They had so many positive encounters that they wondered why other Catholics weren’t doing this.
Dawson recalls one of the first conversions that occurred because of his street evangelization efforts, which began in Portland, Oregon. “This guy with tattoos and piercings all over his body came up to our table. He said, ‘I’d like a rosary.’ I replied, ‘Great! Are you a Catholic?’ He answered, ‘I was baptized and received my first Communion, but I fell away because my father was in prison and my mother kind of abandoned me, so I haven’t been to church since I was 12.’ Then he said, ‘I don’t think I can consider myself Catholic anymore because of the way I have been living.’”
The man, whose name was Frankie, told Dawson that he had lived a horrible, empty lifestyle of drugs, sex, and partying. He lamented, “I think if I would die today, I would definitely be condemned to hell.” Dawson was able to tell Frankie that he had a similar story but had been able to escape that destructive lifestyle. “I said, ‘God will forgive you. You just need to turn back to him and repent of your sins.’ I gave Frankie the address of my church, told him which Mass I attended, and let him know that if he came to that Mass, I would introduce him to my priest. Frankie showed up at Mass and afterward I got the priest so he could go to confession.”
Dawson will never forget seeing him leave the confessional saying, “I’m a new man; I’m a new man!” After that he would see Frankie at the Stations of the Cross and different church events, but he lost contact with him after moving.
Inspiring other Catholics
Dawson and his group of street evangelizers started sharing their street encounters on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to inspire other Catholics to do the same thing. As a result people starting getting in touch with him from all over the country, asking how they could go about street evangelizing. “We thought that if we could team up with all of the people who were contacting us, we could cast more light than if we were working individually.”
Consequently St. Paul’s Street Evangelization was born and now has over 200 street evangelization teams around the United States, as well as international teams who distributing half a million Miraculous Medals a year. What began with one man has grown into thousands of street evangelists promoting the Catholic faith.
An introvert among the first to join
Lucy Stamm and Val Allen from Boise, Idaho, were among the first team to join up with St. Paul’s Street Evangelization. Stamm had desired to evangelize ever since she was confirmed at age 12, but she didn’t feel like she was very good at it. She told Catholic Digest, “I have no natural ability for it, and I only racked up a decades-long record of failure. Eventually I got discouraged and tongue-tied, but the drive remained.”
Allen had been the director of evangelization and stewardship for her parish, so she was on the lookout for a way to continue some sort of outreach. In fall 2012 the two of them ended up downtown on the same Sunday to be part of a group that was beginning to street evangelize.
Stamm saw her role as simply one of on-site prayer support. She felt so enlivened after the experience that she kept showing week after week. Even after their team decided to take the winter off, she still went downtown every week at the same time and silently prayed the Rosary. Her team’s leader discovered she was still going downtown every week and handed over all the signs and other team materials to her. “That catapulted me out of the silent prayer support role; I’d have to actually talk to people.”
Most people find they have some fear to overcome when participating in street evangelization. Stamm claims that she is almost pathologically shy. She’s been able to talk to people on the street because of study and prayer. Every time she feels frustrated or defeated in a conversation, she goes home and researchers what the great thinkers have to say. She also prays. “When I get flustered, my mind tends to just go blank and all that marvelous wisdom becomes inaccessible—and totally useless. So I pray, ‘Help me, Holy Spirit! You love this person and want him to know the truth. Help me find the words.’ And sometimes he does.”
She also says that in many ways it’s easier to talk to strangers about the faith than it is to talk to family and friends because there’s no history. “This means there’s no assuming you’ll know what the other person is going to say. It also means they are not going to have to ‘save face’ by responding the same way they always have before. It’s an opportunity for a fresh start for them.”
She adds, ”Another advantage to being the stranger is that people may feel free to tell you what they’ve never been able to speak about with family members—especially if they’ve been hurt by someone associated with the church. That puts you in a very good position to begin the healing process by offering an apology for their mistreatment and helping them move toward forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Even extroverts have fears about evangelizing on the streets. Allen feared her outgoing personality would get in the way of evangelizing. “I am a chitchatter. I didn’t want it to be about me making a friend. I wanted it to be about somebody making Jesus a friend. I had to find a way to make it work for me.” She discovered it was okay to engage people on a person level because it showed she cared. “You hear so often that people don’t care about what you know until they know how much you care.”
She also worried that someone might stump her with an important question about the faith. She has dealt with this by studying and using the brochures that St. Paul’s Street Evangelization has available. “Their brochures have answers to about any question you can imagine. We say to the person, ‘There’s a brochure on that topic. You might prefer to have one of those because it will tell you where to look in Scripture.’”
Like Stamm and Allen, Dawson has had to conquer his own fears. Even after hundreds of hours of street evangelization, he still feels strange every time he goes out and sets up a table on the street, but as soon as he hands out that first rosary or Miraculous Medal, this feeling disappears. “It’s an act of the will. We’ve been formed by our culture, and our culture says to do something like this is weird. We just have to get over it. We are called to do things in our lives that are uncomfortable.”
Am I called to street evangelize?
“Nobody thinks that they are called to evangelize,” says Dawson. Paraphrasing Paul VI in his encyclical, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World), Dawson says Pope Paul VI said, “Some people are asking themselves whether a person who doesn’t hear the gospel can be saved. That’s the wrong question. The question is: ‘Can I be saved if I don’t evangelize?’”
Steve Ray, a Catholic convert, prolific writer, and host of The Footprints of God Pilgrimages, says that while we are trying to convert others, we also end up evangelizing ourselves. “St. Paul says we must ‘confess with our mouths’ the Lord Jesus. When we do this, the faith is rooted more deeply in our mind and our hearts.”
The Archbishop of Detroit, Most Reverend Allen Vigneron, who has spent time evangelizing with SPSE, adds, “So many of our neighbors are not found in the pews of the church. Therefore, we need to go out to bring Christ to them. Street evangelization is an important aspect of the New Evangelization…and it’s one of the best ways, one of the most effective ways, and one of the easiest ways this can be done.”
Dawson concludes, “We have a gift in the Catholic Church that is so rich and deep; it’s selfish to keep this pearl of great price hidden. People are searching for truth, and we have the truth. We can share that, and we should.”
Joining a team or becoming a leader
If you’d like to join a St. Paul’s Street Evangelization team, but fear you are not well-versed enough in the Catholic faith, don’t worry—the only requirement is that you must be a practicing Catholic in good standing and believe in all the teachings of the Church as laid out by the Magisterium. Only the team leaders are required to take an oath of fidelity to the Magisterium and take a training course, which can be done online. For more information visit StreetEvangelization.com.
The fruits of evangelizing
Lucy Stamm and Val Allen are part of a 12-person team; on a good day, six of the team joins up to evangelize in downtown Boise. They usually hand out 20 to 40 rosaries in an hour. They don’t often hear about the fruits of their efforts, but Stamm recalls one Sunday when she told a man about Jesus Christ and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. “He had only one question: ‘Where’s the nearest Catholic Church?’ Given directions, he took off at a near run. ‘But,’ I cried after him, ‘the doors may be locked!’ He called back, ‘Then I’ll wait!’ And he was gone.”