I was working in a Youth Summer Conference job (they were very similar to Steubenville conferences) when I had the most uncomfortable experience in my life. The summer staff, ten of us split into two groups of five, were blindfolded and put in a car by our bosses. We drove for what felt like three hours and led through an obstacle course (turned out it was a playground). Then our bosses led us back into the cars to drive us somewhere even farther. Our car full of college students was then led onto what felt like a grassy patch under our feet and told to count to 100. As we undid our blindfolds, we found that we were in the middle of a city with no car and no means of communication.
The Reality of Encounter
As the group of us stood there stunned at what was really happening, we read the note given to us before the drivers left: “Go to the MIR House of Prayer.” This was all the information we were given! We looked at each other and I started walking in a direction that looked like the heart of the city. None of us knew what this curious acronym stood for.
We started to ask the citizens of the city what this might mean or directions on how to get there. Eventually, after asking what seemed like one hundred people, we found a woman who knew what this place was! She gave us directions, water, and drove us for about five minutes closer to our destination. Apparently, we had walked a few miles in the opposite direction. Eventually — three hours later — we made it to the MIR House of Prayer. This beautiful chapel, with a wall of windows behind the altar overlooking a valley, contained a silence and peace I had never experienced before.
All of us were very angry that we were forced to go through such a grueling experience. We yelled and explained why it was so dangerous and that it should never happen again. Yet, two years after that experience happened, I realized that it was one of the most forming experiences of my life. Soon it will be four years since that summer of being meaningfully lost in the city, and I could not be more grateful for such an experience.
Heart of Evangelization
What is the New Evangelization? According to St. John Paul II, there are three different types of evangelization: First, reaching out to those who have never heard the Gospel or whose Christian communities are weak. Second, teaching in places where the Gospel is already in place, which means the emphasis needs to be on continuing formation. Finally, teaching where the Gospel was in place but now is fallen away (St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 33).
All Catholics are called to “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). If this is what are we called to, then we must be ready to encounter every single person with the joy and love of Jesus Christ. In order to do this, though, we must break the uncomfortableness that comes with starting conversations.
The experience I had in the city — having to walk up to complete strangers and ask them where a place was that I did not know what it was — broke that barrier for me. There is now no situation in which I feel uncomfortable talking to a person. If there was anything I learned from that experience, it would be that it is really amazing the type of conversations one can have if he has the courage to start the conversation. It is worth starting the conversations.
Break the Barrier
Jesus in the Gospel of John encounters a Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26). The Jewish people in that time were not supposed to speak with Samaritans because the Samaritans were considered unclean. Yet, even knowing this, he conversed with her and stayed with the Samaritans. These two groups did not like each other; yet Jesus felt comfortable staying the night at a Samaritan’s house.
Granted, Jesus is God. But God coming down in the Incarnation is not only for us to be redeemed but for us to have an example of how to live. Jesus’ interaction with these Samaritans is a clear example of how we should be when starting conversations with strangers.
Not everyone is going to be able to have the same experience I had during that fateful summer. How can a person go about building the confidence needed to start these conversations?
I have four time-tested suggestions. First, start saying hello to everyone you come in eye contact with. It is a very small step but amazingly effective! If you step back and observe the world around us, it is actually quite rare to hear people saying hello to each other. It not only creates a more positive outlook on life but starts giving a positive experience of people to others.
As we know, man is made in the imago Dei, the image of God. God is Trinitarian, which means that God is essentially relational. This makes God essentially active and communicative. This would mean that man, being an image (that is, a copy of the original), is relational and communicative. If man is relational and communicative, then man needs to encounter other people to be fully happy, even if it is only in a small manner. In just saying hello to complete strangers, it builds a confidence of starting conversations by simply breaking the ice and acknowledging the relationship we can have with each other.
Second, learn how to listen. If a man or woman is married, then he or she can start working on listening to his or her spouse at the end of the day even if you both are exhausted from daily jobs. In doing this, do not try to fix the problem. Do not think about what you have to get done. Rather, actively listen to what your spouse’s day was like so well that you could repeat almost everything he or she said back to them verbatim.
During marriage preparation our priest made us listen to each other and repeat back everything the other spouse had said word-for-word. It is amazing the effect it has on conversations. Do not respond until you have checked with the other that you understood what the other person has said. This takes a lot of patience to learn. Not only was it great for my marriage but it was really interesting to see the face of the people I encountered when I made sure I understood what they were trying to say. Most people, in my experience, just want someone to hear what they have to say. If you can give the people you encounter a place to communicate, then it opens them up to be receptive to hear what someone else has to say.
Third, ask employees at stores you go to legitimate questions. By “legitimate questions” I mean not just asking to be done with the conversation but actually wanting to know what they have to say. Ask the younger ones what their dreams are, where they want to go to college, or what they do for fun. For anyone over the age of twenty-three one can ask where they got a piece of jewelry, how long they had been working there, how are their families doing, or how did they end up moving to this town. People love telling their own stories. Most just need the opportunity. This builds that focus on the person one is encountering. This builds a genuine curiosity to know other people.
Finally, learn the faith. Take the time to read the Catechism, Scripture, and great works by theologians such as St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Irenaeus, and many more. The more a person knows his faith, the easier it is to talk about it. Have you ever tried to give a presentation on a topic you have done no research for? It is frightening! Turn off the video games or television and read good books about the faith so you can be strong enough to witness!
Build the Bridge
The Chaplain of the Ministry team for the summer staff I worked for always told us to build bridges between people. Find ways to connect hearts. Practice finding ways to get a conversation from what seem like unconnectable situations to speaking about the bigger questions in life.
For example, one person — let us call him “Jim” — could comment that he is a salesman. The other person, “Hank”, could then ask Jim how he got into that line of work. Jim tells Hank that his father made him get a job when he turned sixteen years old. Hank then recounts how his own father did something similar and asks Jim why does he think that their fathers made them do that. Jim responds about how the father probably wanted to keep him out of trouble.
Hank then asks if Jim and his family went to church growing up because that is how Hank’s family attempted to keep him out of trouble. Let us say Jim responds by saying they went but he no longer attends church because it never clicked for him. Hank then can respond with the question, “Why?”
This was just an example but someone could achieve a connection from any conversation if he is aware of what he is talking about. This is why learning how to listen is so important. This is why knowing your faith is important. These conversations are important because they deal with the ultimate questions of life. There are eternal ramifications for these discussions. I call it Airplane-Ready Evangelization because you will have no idea when this conversation will come up. It could be on an airplane, outside of a gas station, on a street corner, in the office, in the gym or a myriad of other places.
Building the confidence to have these conversations is vitally important in faith life. At the end of Mass, some priests say, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord!” We are called to communicate this good news to others, to be relational. We must be comfortable in having the hard discussions. If we truly love them then we care about the state of their souls. This includes that person that just gets under your skin.
The biggest mistake people make with evangelization is counting how many people they have encountered. It becomes a numbers game. This is not what we are trying to do. We are trying to love every single person with the Father’s love, perfect love, as Jesus prays, “I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). Love. Be bold. Be like Christ.