Taking It to the Streets for the Gospel

Anonymous, “St. Paul in Athens” (19th Century)
Anonymous, “St. Paul in Athens” (19th Century) (photo: Public Domain)

The annual Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair draws upwards of 500,000 visitors from all over the world.

This lively, cosmopolitan city  is home to one of the nation’s “Public Ivies,” the University of Michigan.

Many people understandably come to view and purchase art, but a university town is naturally ordered toward public discussion and debate. So a vibrant attraction each year is the large section of non-profit booths located on Liberty between Division and Fifth.

I remember a couple of decades ago when they placed the non-profits on South University, where we could benefit from the shade of towering trees on Michigan’s campus — which is integrated with downtown Ann Arbor — when I helped out with the Right to Life booth. In more recent years, Art Fair organizers have moved the nonprofits to Liberty Street, where the trees are fewer and not so towering, and thus the sunlight gives you something more to offer up, especially this year, when the heat index exceeded 100 degrees one day.

Being back in Ann Arbor now, where my family moved from Detroit in 1976 when I was 14, I decided to help out with a booth that the local chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization (SPSE) operates.

SPSE is a grassroots lay Catholic apostolate dedicated to fulfilling the Great Commission that Jesus Christ gave to his Catholic Church: To make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20), reminding all Catholics that they have a baptismal call to participate in that mission not simply by the witness of their life, but also “announcing Christ by word” (Catechism 905; 897-913, 940-943). St. Paul’s also collaborates with Ave Maria Radio by sharing information on our own apostolate’s commitment to spreading the Good News.

SPSE has a disarming approach of cheerfully handing out free rosaries to passersby, offering a free booklet if people are inclined but have forgotten how to pray the Rosary, or are not familiar with the Marian meditation on key events in the life of Jesus and his Blessed Mother.

“The Gospel on a string,” as my new friend Bobby Hesley described the Rosary to those who walked by on Liberty. “Meditate on the life of Jesus,” I said a day later to many people, attempting to dispel the misconception that the Rosary is a “Mary-focused prayer” that impedes one’s relationship with Jesus vs. actually fostering it.

If people are more open, discussions can follow to see whether they’re active Catholics or not, and if they’d like to receive free information on Catholicism, how to be reconciled to the Church, or how to become Catholic for the first time.

St. Paul’s is a vital apostolate today, including because it witnesses to the U.S. government and citizens at large that there’s much more to our God-given and constitutionally protected religious liberty, than simply the freedom to worship within the four walls of one’s local church or other place of worship, despite what some lawmakers and jurists have been increasingly proposing. In that light, I was heartened to see that the overwhelming number of people we all encountered were not hostile toward us.

Most didn’t take a free rosary, but they interacted pleasantly when we offered them one, saying things like “No thank you,” and also thanking us when we wished them a good day or “You too” when I said, “God bless you.”

When you’re on the street evangelizing, you can’t take yourselves seriously and become discouraged when people don’t respond as well as you’d like. You have to pray for the indomitable joy and peace of Jesus, remembering that you’re at least planting seeds for the Kingdom which Our Lord and others can cultivate further at a later date.

So even a smile and a “God bless you” can elicit a positive response from a hand-holding pair of women, personifying that the Church is there to share challenging truths with genuine love, like Jesus did to the woman at the well (John 4), the woman caught in adultery (John 8), and in discussing how he pursues one “lost sheep” as the Good Shepherd (Matthew 18, Luke 15).

And it seems that God and the Art Fair organizers have a sense of humor, as we were positioned almost directly across from the Michigan Atheists. A nearby Peruvian flutist was playing a variety of popular songs and even hymns on the Art Fair’s first day, from Amazing Grace and Bridge Over Troubled Water, to John Lennon’s Imagine, which has become an atheist anthem for imagining “there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us. Above us only sky.”

“Hey, they’re playing your song,” I called across good-naturedly to those manning the Michigan Atheists booth. The gentleman said he hadn’t yet caught the tune and I told him it was Lennon’s Imagine. As it turns out, he was a former high school classmate at Father Gabriel Richard High School here in Ann Arbor, who was no longer practicing the faith. While he and I now have different perspectives on God and life, we amiably talked about how he and his colleagues had been playing “Name That Tune” with the musical choices of the Peruvian flutist.

One of his colleagues later asked for rosaries to share with Catholic neighbors, and my former classmate and I talked a bit about life since high school, even though he graciously declined my invitation to talk further about how he had come not to believe in Christ and his Church.

Our many encounters at the Art Fair were collectively a good reminder that all human persons are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-28), that no one is beyond redemption (1 Timothy 2:3-4), and that our real enemies are angelic powers and principalities, the devil and his demonic spiritual confreres (Ephesians 6:11-12).

And that we are “more than conquerors” in Christ and his Church (Romans 8:37), and that we can thus do all things in Christ who strengthen us (Philippians 4:13), especially sharing the temporally liberating and eternally saving truth of his Gospel (John 8:31-32, 14:6).