PORTLAND, OR, December 6, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) – If you are strolling around Portland, Oregon, you might come across a pair of friendly people presiding over a table of rosaries and pamphlets explaining the basics of the Catholic faith. This is the St. Paul Street Evangelization (SPSE), a group of lay people inspired by the 40 Days for Life campaigns, to “convert the culture” and rescue a society that has become enamoured of the “contraceptive mentality”.
The group was founded by Steve Dawson, 37, a former seminarian inspired by the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J., a family friend who spent his life forming lay people for apostolic work. The group is growing, and in the few short months since it was founded in May this year, it has expanded to 15 U.S. cities with 130 volunteers and contacts abroad.
Dawson, who calls himself a “revert” to Catholicism, had served on the leadership team of 40 Days for Life in Michigan. He told LifeSiteNews.com he believes he was directly inspired by God to take a more broad approach.
“I felt that we needed to be doing something similar for evangelization,” he said. He took a lesson from his Protestant friends who do street evangelism. “I felt that if we did not convert the culture, it would crumble. We would never put an end to abortion or the culture of death.”
“The Protestants took the faith to the streets, but the Catholics didn’t. I kept asking my friends, when was the last time you were out in public and someone tried to evangelize you to the Catholic Faith.” He balked, however, at impersonal methods employed by some, like speaking through a loudspeaker or being “confrontational,” saying they are “not effective.”
“I believe that pro-life work is important and needs to be done,” he told LifeSiteNews. “Yet, in my spiritual growth and listening to Hardon, it became clear to me that abortion was not the problem. It is a symptom to a deeper problem. Deeper is the contraceptive mentality, which is a symptom of a culture that has lost its way from God. A de-Christianized culture.”
The work, he said, is simple, and mostly consists of talking in a friendly and non-confrontational way with anyone who stops to chat.
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Street teams of two or three people will set up a sandwich board sporting a picture of Jesus and a small table, or sometimes just a blanket on the sidewalk, arranged with rosaries and pamphlets, and then wait. Invariably, someone will stop by and the evangelizers will simply ask, “Are you Catholic?”
The evangelizers will offer a free rosary, with a leaflet to explain what it is and how to use it, and conversations just get started. And with that, they often find themselves opening new directions in the lives of others.
After three years doing direct, person-to-person pro-life work with 40 Days, Dawson left to explore a possible vocation to the priesthood with the Franciscan order. He came back after 14 months, deciding he wanted to be married, but did not want to stop working to convert the culture.
Dawson is now finishing up a degree in business administration at Portland State University and runs SPSE on donations out of his living room.
He told LifeSiteNews that the inspiration comes in part from conversations with the late Jesuit priest, Fr. Hardon, the author of a widely used catechism, and a training program for lay catechists. Fr. Hardon, who inspired hundreds to enter the religious life, also was immensely supportive of lay initiatives.
SPSE has started a training website that will provide a means of connecting evangelizers, he hopes, around the world. Currently, SPSE street evangelizers are working in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Boise, Idaho; Belleville, Naperville and Chicago, Illinois; Detroit and Lansing, Michigan; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Great Falls, Montana; Las Vegas, Nevada; Glens Falls, New York; Portland, Oregon; Coventry, Rhode Island; and Dallas and Forth Worth, Texas.
“We have about 120 evangelists that we are working with who are involved or are seeking to get involved. We are working with people in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Philippines, and UK,” he told LifeSiteNews.com.
Asked why he decided to switch from pro-life work to religious street evangelism, Dawson said the two are inextricably combined, but that he came to believe that the latter must precede the former, particularly in combating the wide acceptance, even among Christians, of contraception.
“So to me, the only way we are going to end abortion is by fighting the problem at the root. We need to convert the culture.”
“It’s like a whack-a-mole game,” he said. “Catholics are whacking down the moles as they pop up. Homosexual marriage pops up…whack. Abortion over here…whack.” But he realized that he could not continue to fight piecemeal.
“I refocused my energy and started asking myself what is the best way that God can use me to bring about the conversion of the culture,” he said. “This is where my learning and experience with 40 Days for Life comes in. After coming up with the non-confrontational street evangelization idea, I applied the 40 Days model to it.”
He said he was inspired in part by the emphasis placed on the “new evangelization” by Pope Benedict XVI. “The idea of public evangelization is not new in the Catholic Church, but it has been lost, at least in the West.
“We are here to bring it back, using all the technological means at our disposal such as web training, social media, etcetera, to do our part in bringing the faith back to the land and to saving our culture.”
Is the work effective? Dawson said that he hopes so, and has seen dramatic conversions more than once. One man who approached him after being offered a free Rosary was a “fallen away Catholic”. Asked why he left the Church, the man said that he believed everything the Church taught but did not believe that abortion was immoral. He said that he would personally never have an abortion, but he thought that a woman had a right to choose what she did with her own body.
After a conversation, the man agreed that it is always wrong to kill an innocent human being, and that the unborn child is human, and therefore abortion must be wrong. The man returned to the Catholic faith and was converted to the pro-life position.
“Abortion is a common topic when we talk to people about the Catholic faith,” Dawson told LSN. “Sometimes we are able to change a person’s mind on the morality of the practice. Sometimes we are just planting seeds. Once in a while God can use us to save a life.”
One young woman was given a medal that Catholics believe can bring about miracles when prayed with. That brought on a 15-minute conversation about Catholic beliefs on abortion, and the girl took home some literature and a small life size 12-week model of a fetus. Several months later, Dawson “ran into her.” She ran up to him and said that the day she had talked about abortion, she had just found out that she was pregnant, and she was planning on having an abortion. After their talk, she said, she felt that “God was giving her a sign to keep her baby.”
One SPSE group in Dallas-Fort Worth reaches out to Latino gangs. Another is led by a former gangster and rapper who uses his talents to reach out to disenfranchised young people. Not all their encounters “go smoothly” of course, Dawson said. “Sometimes we get people who have a chip on their shoulder and something to say.”
“They tell us that the Catholic Church represses women and restricts a woman’s right to choose.” But the group simply prays for those they cannot reach the first time and for another opportunity the next time.