As Catholics, we’re all called to evangelize, but sometimes doing that can be difficult. Living in our own little worlds, we miss or ignore the opportunities God gives us, or we just don’t know how to begin. Three Christian ministries — the Spiritual Care Unit, Save the Storks, and NET Ministries — have a unique way of solving this problem. Each organization is mobile, seeking out people whom they otherwise would never encounter. Catholic Digest spoke to Father Michael Champagne, the priest behind the Spiritual Care Unit in St. Martinville, Louisiana; Joe Baker, founder of Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Save the Storks; and Kylie Holzknecht of Stanwood, Washington, who is a volunteer with NET Ministries.
Spiritual Care Unit — Providing an Opportunity for Grace
In 2012 Father Michael Champagne and other members of the Community of Jesus Crucified struck upon the idea of a mobile confessional.
“I realized that a mobile unit would be a great way to bring the Gospel into the streets and follow the Good Shepherd’s call to go in search of the lost sheep,” Father Champagne says.
In 2015, in time for the start of the Jubilee of Mercy, they were able to buy an ambulance on ebay, which they decorated with religious art and texts.
On Dec. 8, 2015, Father Champagne parked the Spiritual Care Unit (SCU) outside of three locations: a high school, a grocery store, and a mall. Between the three locations, he heard 48 confessions that day. In addition to hearing confessions and giving counseling, other members of the Community of Jesus Crucified visited with people outside the unit.
Father Champagne’s SCU aims to reach those who have left the Catholic Church.“There is the growing group of people who may have gone to Catholic school, been baptized, and received some sacraments, but are no longer (receiving) the sacraments and may not even identify as Catholic anymore,” Father Champagne says. “These non-practicing Catholics are not in the churches on weekends, so they must be evangelized in a person-to-person fashion. For religious and priests to encounter them, they must meet them on their turf with the Gospel in a new way and with renewed zeal.”
Since the debut of the SCU in December, Father Champagne and his team have made 67 stops, heard confessions for 178 hours (1,744 confessions), and driven 3,430 miles. Father Champagne says the confessions he has heard in the mobile unit have been especially edifying because many are with people who have been away from the sacrament for decades.
“Those who have approached the SCU have all been moved by actual graces to repent and are humble and courageous in confessing their sins. So many have said that seeing the unit was God speaking to them,” Father Champagne says. “They had wanted to get the courage to go to confession but had been putting it off. Coming out of the shopping mall or grocery store and seeing it, they knew God had provided the opportunity.”
On Dec. 7, 2015, Father Champagne received exciting news from the Vatican. Pope Francis has granted the Jubilee Plenary Indulgence to all those who devoutly visit the mobile confessional (SCU) for confession and pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet there during the Jubilee of Mercy.
You can follow the activity and schedule of the SCU by visiting their Facebook page, Fete Dieu du Teche.
Save the Storks — Reaching Abortion-Minded Women
Joe Baker founded Save the Storks in 2011 after volunteering in a mobile sonogram bus in New York City. Initially, he was skeptical. “They were using a retrofitted shuttle van, and my first thought was, ‘this is really shady.’”
Baker quickly changed his mind when he saw the impact a sonogram could have on a pregnant young woman.
“The girl who was training me to do sidewalk counseling went to get coffee, and while she was gone, this young girl walked up to me and said, ‘I’m here for my appointment,’ thinking that I worked for the abortion clinic,” Baker says. “I was able to get out that we were offering free pregnancy tests and sonograms, if she was interested. To my astonishment, she said, ‘Sure.’”
When they exited the bus, she told Baker, “I’m calling my mom. I have to tell her that she’s going to be a grandmother.”
“For me, that was life-changing,” Baker says.
So life-changing that he called his fiancée that night and told her that their life was going to take a different path.
“Within a year, in 2011, Ann and I got married and, instead of buying a house, we bought a gutted Mercedes Sprinter van, wrapped it, and went on tour to launch the Stork Bus.”
Five years later, Save the Storks is a major nonprofit that Baker expects to grow by 100 percent in 2016. They have 20 buses all over America, with two out for delivery, four that are being built, and 12 that they are fundraising for. They brought in $3.5 million last year. Baker says the organization has grown through small donations — with the average donation being $30 a month.
Save the Storks partners with local pregnancy centers that operate the mobile units. They park in a variety of places, including in front of abortion clinics, low-income housing, college campuses, and a women’s prison. “The mobile unit gets you into places where your center can’t go. These women have not heard of pregnancy centers, and suddenly they’re kind of running into you,” Baker says.
It’s vital that those women receive life-affirming help soon after finding out they’re pregnant. “Most women who are abortion-vulnerable call an abortion clinic within 24-48 hours,” Baker says. “You’ve got to [be] innovative to reach those women before they make the decision to abort.”
To Baker, “the sonogram is the magic.” He says 4 out of 5 women who receive a sonogram on their buses keep their babies. “It’s the thing that really helps the mother bond with the baby,” he says.
In 2014, Save the Storks’ New Jersey affiliate reported that 94 women made the decision for life in front of a single abortion clinic.
“We want to be the innovators that support centers and help them reach more women. That’s really our mission. If they can reach more women, then we’re successful,” Baker says.
Readers can help Save the Storks share their life-affirming message by donating online at SaveTheStorks.com. Baker also encourages people to share the organization’s ads on social media. “Spreading the word about us online is tremendously helpful, and it’s something that anyone can do,” he says. “Most people find us through social media, so you can’t comprehend the impact one share can have.”
After attending a National Evangelization Team (NET) retreat during her junior of high school, Kylie Holzknecht knew she wanted to be apart of a NET team. Two years later, she was accepted to serve. NET, which was started in 1981 and is based in West St. Paul, Minnesota, sends young adults on teams to minister to the youth of America by holding retreats at Catholic schools and parishes.
“A lot of the time, when someone thinks of a missionary, they think of someone traveling to another country, but the U.S. needs help, too. Faith either isn’t important to youth or it isn’t talked about,” Holzknecht says. “So many people don’t know that God loves them, so when we travel around the country, we try to communicate this with our words and our actions.”
Each year NET sends retreat teams of 11 to13 young adults around the country to reach sixth- through 12th-graders. Holzknecht says that using volunteers from all over the country — with different backgrounds, mistakes, and successes — is what makes NET different.
“You give up your year, live out of one suitcase and one backpack for nine months, and travel in a van with 11 other strangers to reach youth you would never reach otherwise,” she says. “Living so closely, you have to choose daily to love one another, and that love overflows into ministry — allowing you to love broken and lonely youth across the country, inviting them into the joy of Christ’s love.”
NET reveals God’s love through a variety of themes, ranging from how to be anchored in the hope of Christ amidst suffering and what it means to be a man or woman of God to why Catholicism is important.
“We challenge young people to embrace their Catholic faith and to truly allow it to come alive in their lives,” she says. “We give them practical ways to do that, and we show them that even though it’s hard, it’s worth it.”
Because young people need role models near their own age, NET missionaries are between the ages of 18 and 28.
“There’s a misconception that to be faithful is to be bored or stoic or stiff, but we try to communicate that there is so much joy in loving and being loved by God,” Holzknecht says.
She says that during retreats, God uses NET missionaries as instruments of his grace.“It is our time of prayer on retreat that impacts the most, because we give them time to just be with God and let him do all the talking,” she says. “There have been so many times where youth just didn’t know that they were loved, and our witness or our words helped them to know it or be reminded of it.”
Serving with NET also had an impact on Holzknecht’s life. “Honestly, before NET I didn’t have as great a relationship with God,” she says. “They ask that you set aside 30 minutes each day to pray, and since I’ve started doing that, I’ve found more peace, more joy, and more fulfillment in my life. NET also provides such a great community of people who point each other to God whenever possible. With NET, you’re not just putting on life-changing retreats. Your life is being changed through all the people you encounter and all the Lord you encounter.”
Readers can get involved with NET by requesting an application to serve, bringing a NET team to their own parish, or even hosting part of a NET team overnight. You can learn more at NetUSA.org.