Stand up and wake up

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When Deacon Albert A. Anderson Jr. started to preach at St. Joseph Church in Alexandria March 16, people sat quietly in the pews. This was the first of three nights of Lenten Revival Services at the Old Town church, and part of the ongoing centennial celebration. Deacon Anderson wanted people up on their feet.

"We're here to be revived," he said as he walked up and down the center aisle. "Catholics don't always have to be the frozen chosen. Stand up, wake up."

Deacon Anderson told the congregation that they know friends who have gone to Baptist or Methodist revivals.

"Invite them to a Catholic revival," he said.

When Deacon Anderson finished his call to worship, the St. Joseph Gospel Choir sang "My God is Awesome." People got to their feet, clapped and sang the lyrics along with the choir. Some moved into the aisle or stood in their place raising their arms to the Lord. The choir collectively swayed back and forth as the congregation copied their movements.

Josephite Father Donald M. Fest introduced the revivalist, Franciscan Father Paul M. Williams, as a former parishioner of St. Joseph Church, born and raised in Alexandria.

Father Williams was ordained to the priesthood in 1986 and served as pastor for several churches in South Carolina. In 2013, he was appointed pastor of St. Joseph Church in Wilmington, Del.

Father Williams has been a revivalist for 27 years, leading services in South Carolina and Virginia. He only does a few each year, but he does his job well.

He started slowly: "Nothing is impossible with God," he said.

He quickly moved on to the power of prayer and devotion to the Blessed Mother.

But Father Williams' main message was that Catholics need to be storytellers. In order to evangelize, he said, we need to tell stories.

And he told the congregation stories; some amusing, some poignant.

He went to Rome and he got sick. It was a cold, nothing serious, but his nose was running and he was sneezing. He was going on a bus tour and he grabbed a handful of tissues. Of course he ran out of tissues.

"I had a conversation with God," he said. "I need your help. I don't want to beg for tissues."

He was walking to the bus and stopped, looked down at his feet and there was a box of tissues.

God came through, he said, and he avoided embarrassment.

Father Williams lives in a bad part of Wilmington. He said the city has been called the most violent city in America. His car was stolen and he was robbed at gunpoint, but he continues to live there with his Franciscan brothers.

"We have to be there," he said.

The young man who robbed him and took his car, was arrested across from the scene of the crime playing basketball, the stolen car parked nearby.

He said that children love stories. He remembers as a child asking his mother about his birth - often.

"Tell me the story of how I was born?" he would ask his mother.

"You didn't want to come out," his mother told him.

Children learn from us through stories, he said.

"You gotta' tell stories. You can't protect your children if you don't tell them who Jesus is. How will the children know unless we tell the stories?" he said.

But he also said to tell the children if you've had struggles too.

"Believe in this God," he said, "this mighty and awesome God."

Father Williams went on to speak of self-worth.

"You are a prince. You are a princess. Don't let anyone say you are nothing," said Father Williams, pointing to the congregation.

By this time people were clasping their hands and praying. Some were crying, some smiling. There were shouts of "Amen."

When you go to your reward in heaven, he said, there will be no more pain.

"Every soul will shine as bright as the stars in the sky," he said.

There were closing remarks by Father Fest and a final blessing by Father Williams.

As people walked out the church to their homes and cars, they talked about the revival service.

"I think it was wonderful," said Iris Wright-Simpson. "Telling people stories makes a difference."

"It was amazing. Awesome," said Jeanette Tantt. "God is good."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015