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Urban missionary hits the streets for Christ

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The heat and humidity caused everyone to move a little slowly, but it was a busy Saturday afternoon at the Lakeforrest Transit Center in Gaithersburg, Md. A bag of groceries at her feet, a mother of three young children wiped away sweat as she waited for her bus. In front of her, a young woman boarded a southbound bus on her way to a summer lifeguarding job, while several yards away a shirtless man danced to music streaming through his earphones.

Weaving in between the benches and clusters of waiting people, a woman was connecting with individuals around a different kind of journey - one centered on the soul.

Joanne Fields is an urban missionary with St. Paul Street Evangelization, a grassroots nonprofit whose volunteers hit the streets with the faith, evangelizing in a nonconfrontational way. Fields, along with anywhere from five to 15 missionaries, comes each week to the transit center - or a nearby metro stop or grocery store - to share "Jesus' love and mercy," she said.

The 39-year-old alumna of Christendom College in Front Royal is founder and team leader of the Gaithersburg chapter of SPSE, as well as one of the first full-time missionaries with the organization. Started in Portland, Ore., in 2012 and now based in Indiana, SPSE includes more than 200 street evangelization teams worldwide, including in Honduras, Japan and Sweden. Some chapters are started by parishes, others by individuals. In the Arlington Diocese, there are chapters in Fairfax, Fredericksburg and South Riding; the Richmond Diocese has missionaries in Virginia Beach. Fields is in the process of forming a new team in the Alexandria-Arlington area.

SPSE provides materials and training for chapters and promotes a joy-filled and relational approach to evangelization. "No one wants to feel judged or told what to do," said Fields.

Missionaries typically go up to an individual and offer a rosary, asking if the person knows how to pray with it. "We go from there based on what they say," said Fields. "The people are wonderful and receptive. Some of them are not interested, and we respect that."

Fields took an online SPSE training course to start the Gaithersburg chapter and underwent additional training to be a full-time missionary. Her work primarily is supported by donations from friends and personal connections. Along with Saturday's outings, Fields does "low-key" weekday street evangelizing, runs a small group for people she's met on the streets, prays regularly and organizes new teams.

'A turning point'

Fields' zeal for evangelization sprung in part from a profound encounter with God.

At a retreat about four years ago, "I had an amazing experience of Jesus' love for me," she said. "I'd been going to daily Mass for 20 years, but until then, the Lord's love for me personally never really penetrated. That was a turning point."

She also felt the Lord directing her to a specific priest - now Auxiliary Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese.

"He taught me how to pray; he truly evangelized me," said Fields. "I knew the good news in an abstract way, but finally it reached me" on a deeper level.

Fields was left with an overwhelming desire to share the happiness and peace she felt with others.

However, as "somewhat of an introvert," she remembers feeling "terrified" the first time she joined friends evangelizing at a bus stop. Yet as He always does, God gave her the needed boost, she said.

Fields recalled there "was this big muscular dude" donning a Statue of Liberty costume to advertise Liberty Tax Service. "And I was like, wow, if this guy can do that advertising for money, I can hand out little prayer cards for God."

All about relationship

At the transit center on the recent Saturday, Fields was joined by a handful of teammates, as well as Father Christopher Goodwin, secretary to the papal nuncio at the apostolic nunciature in Washington and the team's spiritual adviser.

Rosaries of all colors, blessed miraculous medals, prayer cards and information about nearby parishes rested on a small table, ready to be shared with passersby.

Over the course of two hours, Fields had a conversation about what constitutes a consecrated host, encouraged a man to come to a Catholic church rather than start his own, and prayed with and for numerous people. A crucifix dangling from her neck, Fields approached each person with a smile and gentle manner.

"The best thing you have to offer as an evangelizer is yourself, just who you are as He has formed you," said Father Goodwin. "You don't have to have all the answers."

Fields added that one of the misconceptions about evangelization is that it's about apologetics. But most encounters with people - who range from the wealthy to the poor and include those with no faith, a different faith tradition and Catholics who've drifted from the church - are "about having a normal conversation with (them) … and sharing the joy of God's love through relationship."

"God is triune, He is love," she said. "As soon as you show someone love and respect, you are imaging for them who God is, and it gives them hope."

Fields said some people are hesitant to evangelize out of "fear of seeming weird," which at its heart is the "fear of being rejected."

But she said the gap between ourselves and others is really a lie - one we can cross with communication and faith and that is easier to bridge "the more times you jump it."

The most important thing to remember when evangelizing is that "it's not about us," she said.

If someone walks away from you, it's easy to think of it as failure, said Fields. "But it doesn't depend on us as missionaries." The job is to plant the seeds and let God make them grow.

"I bumble through things, and He makes something beautiful out of it."

Find out more

For more information about how to be an evangelist or how you can support St. Paul Street Evangelization, go here

Joanne Fields offers a talk for parishes called "10 Great Ways to Be an Amazing Evangelist." Email her at SPSEgaithersburg@gmail.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016