This is part three of a three part series.
Exemplary Evangelists in the Modern Age
How have saintly figures in the more modern world carry out the work of evangelism? I would like to present three figures I believe to be diverse examples of successful evangelists: Damien of Molokai, Teresa of Calcutta, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Father Damien de Veuster is recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church after living and dying doing ministry for the leper colony of Hawaii at the end of the Nineteenth century. Mother Teresa is well known for her decades of work with the Missionaries of Charity in the mid to late Twentieth century, especially in India. She was recently declared a saint as well. Doctor King is of course, the American Baptist minister who spoke powerfully for the civil rights movement between the 1950's- 60's. Each of these figures functioned in different ways with very different people. Yet, I believe each can be considered a successful evangelist for how they carried out Christ's commission.
Father Damien de Veuster, now most often known as Saint Damien of Molokai, became an evangelist by his work as pastor to the leper colony of Molokai, Hawai'i. His method of evangelism did not revolve around intellectual discussion or moral convictions among learned members of society. Rather, he came to minister to lepers, exiles from the wider society. To them, simply preaching about Jesus might seem foreign and out of touch. What does it matter if God became man to die for our sins when I am a poor dying exile? Yet, Damien discovered these people were perhaps those most in need of hope. So, the way he was called to evangelize was not merely to talk about a God of hope, but to actively bring hope to them.
Damien1 truly entered into the place of the lepers' suffering. Any true evangelist, if he believes that God is with him, should have no fear. Unlike the prophet Jonah who fled from the place God sends him, Damien chose to go directly into the place where he was needed. While living among that people, Damien treated them with the dignity which they were due, though rarely afforded. Among his first tasks on Molokai was to begin building coffins and organizing a graveyard in order to offer properly distinguished burials to the dead. Soon after, he began building houses and oversaw a pipeline to bring clean water to the village. Perhaps most shockingly, Damien began to dress the wounds of lepers himself because no doctor lived among them. In all of these ways and more, he showed to the people that they were worthy of love. He brought Christ's love to them without needing to convince them through words. Inspired by this hope, those people began to embrace the faith. Because they witnessed a man convicted by love of Christ, filled with joy, and motivated by hope, they too could assent to that same faith.
That is not to say that Damien's work was limited to his example, either. As a good evangelist, he also removed the obstacles and empowered his parishioners to live out the faith well. He corrected habits of sin among the people; for example, chastising the patterns of fornication or drunkenness. Yet, he was not a gatekeeper, but a true shepherd, guiding his flock. Not only did he help to develop the physical homes on the island, Damien helped to build up the community. Within the island churches, choirs, altar server guilds, and prayer groups grew. Thus, the faith became the people's own.
As a good evangelist, he enabled his flock to meet Jesus for themselves. By inspiring an active faith community within the desolate leper colony, Damien revived a purpose of life, inspiring joy and hope. The source of these, of course, was not Damien himself, but Jesus Christ.
Additionally, for lepers living with an imminent sense of death, this sense of purpose even overcomes the fear of death. Without hope- the hope for heaven and union with God- death seems like a nihilistic horror. Neither the local government nor the indigenous customs offered much to comfort the dying. In contrast, the Catholic faith allowed immense comfort and real charity to thrive. With Christ present to them, no one is left to die alone or hopeless. In summary about Saint Damien, I believe his success as an evangelist came not only by proclaiming the words of God, but through living encounter.
As a second example, I would highlight the work of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. This order of religious sisters (recognized by their white habit with blue detail) has for decades served the poorest of the poor, primarily in India. There, members of the “untouchable” caste were so underprivileged that many were left to suffer and die completely abandoned, even in the streets. Certainly, Jesus' image of Lazarus contrasted by the selfish rich man is entirely fitting here. Moved by compassion, Teresa entered into the world of the suffering poor, leaving behind comfort for poverty. The message of hope she shared was in recognizing the inherent dignity of each human person. By this simple attitude, she could share in Jesus' work as savior of all mankind. She answered Jesus' challenge, “As you did to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).
Further, she worked to change the local climate to a more just society. Whereas the local caste system was deeply ingrained, she challenged it by living differently and inviting others to do the same. In contrast to British colonialism, Teresa uplifted the dignity of the people she encountered with charity rather than by force. This challenge in many ways uprooted- or at least loosened- the societal sins oppressing the poor. Whereas the native caste system oppressed and the British colonized, Mother Teresa evangelized. The key, as she famously said, was to see each individual as Jesus Christ. Mother Teresa and her sisters recognized the dignity of every person and treated them accordingly.
The influence of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity shook the whole world. Despite the fact that they lived in a radical poverty, these religious sisters led by a small and soft-spoken lady, piqued the interest of people the world over. Teresa received a Nobel prize and spoke in front of countless dignitaries. Yet, she always maintained the evangelical witness of Christ, whether encountering the most impoverished or those affluent and wealthy.
In the modern day, there are many who criticize Mother Teresa or even claim she was a villain. In short, I would refer to this page2 where a lot of research has been collected to rebut many false accusations. More to the point, I believe it appropriate to draw a deeper connection between Teresa as evangelist and Jesus Christ. Jesus is the model evangelist, yet we know that He was rejected and attacked, to the point of being crucified. The Apostles, too, were persecuted even as they successfully brought people to Christ. So, I would make the assertion that some kind of rejection from the world may actually be expected whenever true evangelism takes place. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus says, is not of this world, and so the spirit of the world rejects it, even as souls are converted and enter into His Kingdom.
As a third figure of a successful evangelist, I will highlight Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. (hereafter Dr. King). Dr. King is often most remembered for his contributions to racial justice and equality in the Civil Rights Movement, but I believe his core message was not at all alien from his Christian faith. In the years he was active, he reached thousands of people. Posthumously, his influence has expanded even further. Because he is best known for his influence on the law and culture, his identity as a Baptist minister may be overlooked. Yet, his work of promoting and pursuing social justice follows the same (or at least a similar) model as Christ.
First, Dr. King was certainly no stranger to the place of suffering. He allowed himself to be intimately familiar with the most underprivileged, literally walking among them. Not only that, but I believe he also approached those in need of change because of their blind privilege or active bigotry. Dr. King did not avoid or condemn the sinner, but encountered them even in their place of suffering and sin as well.
Second, he inspired hope in his words and actions. Dr. King outlined a vision of a future without the sin of racism, a vision of a charitable society. This vision, his dream, is rooted in Jesus Christ and the virtues which He exemplifies. Not only by word, but actively working for positive change, Dr. King inspired hope for his listeners and neighbors.
Third, he called out injustice for what it is, attacking sin at its roots. Though he was not a priest (or Jesus Himself) offering the forgiveness of sins, he called for an uprooting of this sin, both from society and from individuals. He did not seek to instigate violence or commit sin to combat sins. He did not merely accuse the guilty in order to make them ashamed. Rather, his call was for conversion and reconciliation. What could be more Christlike than to call people to repent and live in renewed communion?
Fourth and finally, Dr. King sought to leave people with a new way of life. Although his life was tragically cut short, the results of his work are undeniable. The development of racial justice has progressed greatly since his time. That is not to say that all the work is done, but that by his work, Dr. King successfully evangelized to change the environment in the United States to be more truly Christian. I would proclaim Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. as a successful evangelist, bringing the message of Christ to the racial conversation of the twentieth century.
The Evangelical Counsels
Each of these evangelists demonstrated a certain aspect of contra mundum, a willingness to oppose the sinful influences of the world. For Catholic religious, there is the particular commitment to what are called the evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Religious communities, such as the Missionaries of Charity, take vows for each of these counsels, while other clergy like priests typically make promises (there are nuanced differences between these). These commitments witness to the Kingdom of God in contrast to the spirit of the world. The practice of celibacy, for example, is not natural to the world. Instead, it presents a witness of dedication to the reality of heaven on earth. Likewise, poverty witnesses to a radical reliance on God, motivated by faith. Obedience witnesses to humility and belief in the sovereign authority of God through the ministers of His Church. Though all believers can actively live virtuously, those dedicated to these evangelical counsels call others to a deeper faith in a unique and powerful way. Possessions, sexuality, and individual initiative may be very good things, but choosing to live without them demonstrates a detachment from the transient world; being set apart from the world to witness to the hope coming only from the Lord.
Our Mission as Evangelists
Looking back at these examples of Biblical and modern evangelism, a common theme I find is one of hope and joy. Whether an Apostle is speaking to a beggar or a minister to someone in distress, the message of Christ is always one of hope. The Kingdom of God is Heaven, the place of perfect joy and peace in union with God. When we preach that it is at hand, it should not be coupled with doom and desolation, but should be immensely joyful. I think this is true of St. Damien, St. Teresa, and Dr. King. Despite the burdens each bore and the desolate climates they faced, each one inspired hope and joy as they carried out the work of the Kingdom. I think that our mission too, should keep this in mind.
Unfortunately, my experience with formal evangelism has not often reflected the aspects I have highlighted thus far. My experience of door-to-door ministry seemed exciting at first, but ran into the aforementioned problem that everyone had already heard about Christianity and rarely wanted to talk very deeply about Christ. Though I got to meet a number of kind people, I don't know how effectively I actually shared the Gospel. Since high school, I've written a handful of articles and things online for various Catholic websites and publications. I generally find a great satisfaction seeing something published with my name on it. But, in all honesty, I don't think online content of that nature reaches a lot of people who don't already generally agree with it. At best, it may be enriching, but doubtfully effectively evangelical. While I don't mean to undermine the merits of such things and the ability of God to achieve things far out of my sight, in my self-reflection, I don't know how much successful evangelism I can find.
So, the question remains: How can I develop this skill and then recommend the same for others?
First, before even formally evangelizing according to any method, I believe I ought to hone my intention and perception whenever I encounter someone. Do I recognize in them their dignity as a beloved child of God? How can I encounter them in the way Jesus Himself would? How can I introduce Jesus into my relationship with this person? This is admittedly challenging because it is not my default approach. Additionally, I have to recognize in myself both the humble reality that I am not perfect and will make mistakes, yet the profound reality that God can work through me.
How might applying the 4-step model of evangelism to a relationship look? Having established a relationship with someone, I don't approach them as from above, but encounter them with respect and dignity. In whatever way is appropriate, I may encounter them in their reality, even when that is a place of suffering. Rather than maintaining the status quo and remaining on the surface, how can I approach serious and real issues? Especially as a future minister, I will be expected to engage with people's vulnerabilities and suffering. This must be handled with reverence, yet courage.
Once engaged in that serious conversation, I must rely on Christ to present hope. Without sounding either saccharine or flippant, how can I speak joyfully about the hope found in Jesus? Then, recognizing the obstacles between the person and accepting Christ, what is my place in addressing them? As an acquaintance or a friend, the role is different than a priest or a counselor, but the concept is nonetheless similar. What can I offer to encourage the removal of obstacles to grace? This may even be something tangible which requires physical help. What resources can I extend to offer real help? In any number of ways, I should listen to the needs of the person I encounter in order to respond.
Finally, what can I do to encourage and empower this person? The goal of my encounter as an evangelist is to leave them in some way closer to Christ and enabled to further their relationship with Him. As a Catholic, this is concretely possible through the sacraments instituted by Christ. This basic model I think can apply in a single conversation or a relationship spanning years. Either way, it should always conclude with a greater sense of hope established, the presence of the Kingdom of God.
Beyond evangelizing within personal relationships, for those who will be future ministers and church leaders, we will have even wider scopes of influence. Still, these standards should apply. If I am directing a church group or program, I should recall that the goal is not just immediate results of success, but the establishment of the Kingdom of God. With this in mind, my focus might be shifted from quantity to quality. Can the invitation to church programs and the sacraments be spread widely without compromising the level of engagement afforded to each person there? Can they hear the message of the Gospel as a personal call drawing them into a communion? With these considerations, we can avoid the pitfalls of becoming superficial or disengaged from the true mission of our work. Further, we can rejoice in the salvation of each individual rather than being distracted with numbers viewed impersonally. When individuals know that we care personally for them, that they are valued as children of God, they will be more deeply affected by the message of salvation we have to share.
Ultimately, our mission of evangelism is to bring Christ to the world and the world to Christ. We can borrow the words of the Gospel, proclaiming, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” When we believe this and live this out, our own lives will be transformed by hope and begin to radiate joy, which will be attractive to other people. We will see the world around us transformed into the seedbed (or perhaps the garden) of grace which God created it to be. Then, by the sacraments He gave us, they may join to the Mystical Body of Christ. As the bottom line, we should entrust all of our work to the Lord, relying on His grace and not our abilities. Just as He took humble fishermen and turned them into master evangelists, He can use our talents and weaknesses to bring joy and hope to the world.
1 The major source for my information on St Damien comes from the biography Damien the Leper by John Farrow.