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I Guess Jesus Saved Me Today
stories of evangelization
“The minute you walk outside of your church on Sunday you’re in mission territory.”
Bishop Robert Barron
As a teenager, the image that sprang to mind when I heard the word evangelization, was Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Pastel pant suits, big hair, makeup that would make a clown cringe, and jacket lapels so wide you could land a plane on them.
I wasn’t quite sure what they were praying for on the PTL Club, but I knew it wasn’t what we were praying for at Saint Mary of the Assumption Byzantine Catholic Church in Trenton, New Jersey.
Somehow, the 500 dollar leisure suits (that was a lot of money in 1974!), million dollar mansions, and begging 87 year old widows to send their social security checks to a P.O. box in Charlotte, North Carolina, didn’t square with, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” Mark 10:21
So perhaps you will understand why evangelization never made it to my “to do” list, or why I never equated it with my obligations as a Catholic.
Like many Catholics coming of age in the 70’s and 80’s, I attended Parochial school, said grace before every meal, and attended Church on Sundays and holy days of obligation. You may even say I did all that religiously. I even served as an altar boy (which required quite a bit of zeal and fortitude, considering the amount of incense used and the complexity and length of the Liturgies of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Basil the Great).
I even took what I learned as an altar boy home, putting a beach towel over my shoulders on occasion, and “saying” mass for the neighborhood kids gathered in my backyard. I could never quite understand why my Episcopalian and Methodist friends couldn’t follow along; not to mention my Latin Rite Catholic buddies. They always thought I was standing on the wrong side of the picnic table.
As I grew into adulthood, however, I fell into the life of the modern Catholic. Yes, I still said grace before meals, although never in public, and I attended Church when obligated to do so. Boy, wasn’t I the star Catholic?
Evangelization still hadn’t entered my thought process, and worship was reserved for Sunday morning, usually between 9:30 and 10:20AM.
That would begin to change one afternoon several years ago.
“For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” Ephesians 2:10
One afternoon, while working as a Lyft driver, I was summoned to a pick-up at the Trenton train station. I pulled up in front of the station, and a woman, likely in her late forties or early fifties, got into the back seat. Her appearance belied her age. Her hair was long, gray, and somewhat unkempt. Her face was drawn, carried far too many wrinkles for a woman of her age, and seemed to tell a story of a life marked with questionable choices, bad luck, and more than her fair share of heartache. I was to take her to the Sleepy Hollow Motel on Route 1 in Lawrenceville.
Back in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, when families would cram five kids and a whole lot of luggage into a Ford Country Squire station wagon, and head out to parts unknown, like the Delaware Water Gap, the Grand Canyon, or maybe Pennsylvania’s own Crystal Cave, motels like the Sleepy Hollow were a welcome sight when Dad starting dozing, and Mom would insist it’s time to get off the road for the night. Those days were long gone, however, and the Hollow had become a run-down shell of it’s former glory, now providing subsidized housing and hosting nightly drug deals.
Unfortunately, the Sleepy Hollow was also home for my passenger.
As we pulled into the loop driveway in front of the motel, the back seat occupant began to cry. I gave her a few moments to collect herself, but the crying became sobbing. I waited a few more moments before asking if there was something I could do for her. I quickly questioned my judgement in making such an offer; it seemed her response could contain any one of a number of unsavory requests.
She eventually gathered herself enough to tell me that she was returning home after attending her daughter’s funeral in North Carolina.
Her daughter had followed mom’s example and had begun drug use at an early age. It had now taken her life. I, at first, couldn’t tell if she was grieving the loss of her only child, or weeping for the role she had played in the tragedy. Turns out it was a lot of both.
“We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak with our lips.” Saint Peter Claver
I got out of the driver seat and moved along side of her in the back seat. I took her hand in mine, and, as I did, I could see the scars left on her arms as constant reminders of bad choices and self-inflicted abuse.
She asked me to pray.
I was a good Catholic boy. I knew so many prayers by heart. But this woman needed much more than prayers learned by rote in childhood.
I stuttered. I stammered. I did my best impression of the Saturday morning “healers” I saw praying over people on TV when I was a little kid. I felt useless. I felt like I was failing this broken woman.
But then the Holy Spirit showed up with a massive dose of humility. Ed Jacko wasn’t going to change this woman’s life. Ed Jacko wasn’t going to stop the tears or begin the healing. Christ was.
Please don’t ask me what I said next, or how long we sat in front of that mangy motel. I wouldn’t be able to answer. I have a vague memory of words just flowing from my mouth. I wasn’t speaking; the Holy Spirit was. It may have been minutes. It may have been an hour.
There were tears. There was laughter. Most importantly, there was hope. A hope that this poor woman’s daughter was resting in the arms of our Lord. A hope that this mother would make changes in her own life. A hope that Christ would enter, and remain in her heart.
I don’t know what became of my heartbroken Lyft passenger. It’s not for me to know. When I think of her, I pray she is well.
After that experience, and others much like it, I began to change my understanding of evangelization. I didn’t have to wear a three-piece polyester suit and get my own hour of power TV show. I didn’t have to stand on a corner with a bullhorn, waving a Bible. I didn’t need to start every conversation with “can I tell you a little something about my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?!” No. I simply had to be…there. When someone needed to feel the loving arms of Christ on their shoulder, and I’m the only one around, I need to be there.
“You might be the only Bible someone ever reads.” Pope Paul VI
Not too long after my experience with the woman at the Sleepy Hollow Motel, I was standing in line at my bank. The gentleman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked about the shirt I was wearing. I had stopped at the bank on the way home from my That Man Is You meeting, and forgotten I was wearing a shirt bearing the mission of the group; “Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, Christ wants to meet you there, and take you further.”
The man wanted me to explain what that meant, and how someone makes it happen. We concluded our business in the bank and continued our conversation in the parking lot. We spoke for about 20 minutes. To my surprise and delight, that same man showed up at my parish for our meeting the following Saturday. He’s been a regular ever since. Evangelization!
From that encounter sprung an idea. Why don’t I wear shirts like that more often? I’ve read Romans 1:16; I’m not ashamed of the gospel!
I began to buy and wear Christian themed t-shirts. Eventually, I created my own line of t’s. I use the proceeds from the sale of the shirts to fund my work with homeless folks.
At this point, I have somewhere close to 100 Christian themed t-shirts in my drawers and wear them as often as possible. Most days they go unnoticed, but there are still those times when they spark a conversation.
“So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:20
About 18 moths ago I was at a convenience store grabbing a sandwich (the store was a Wawa. If you’re from Eastern PA or South Jersey, you know all about Wawa). As I stood in the checkout line, I noticed a young man who was, to put it simply, panicked. He was walking in and out of the store, attempting to make cell phone calls which seemed to be going unanswered, and, at one point, stopping to speak to the manager. After paying for my sandwich, I caught up with the man outside. I asked what was wrong, and he told me he stopped to put air in one of his tires, but the air pump wasn’t working, and only drained more air out of an already low tire. Noticing a second air pump, he tried again. That machine also wasn’t working, and now he had a completely flat tire. He was far from home, couldn’t reach friends or family on his phone, and the store manager assured him the air pumps would be serviced on Monday. It was Saturday.
I mentioned that I had a compressor in my trunk, and would bring it over to his car, and we’d have him on the road in no time. Unfortunately, the outlet in his car was dead, so we had to power the compressor with my car. I got as close as I could, plugged the compressor in, and had to feed the power cord out my driver side window, into his passenger side window, and out his driver side window. Eventually, we had all his tires fully inflated, and he was ready to go.
Just as the young man was about to get into his car and drive away, he paused, and looked back to thank me. It was at this moment that he noticed the t-shirt I was wearing; it had an image of our crucified Lord on it, and the words “who is your hero?’
He looked up from the shirt and said, “hey! I guess Jesus saved me today.” I replied, “today, and every day.”
The gentleman got in his car and waved as he drove away. I don’t know what has happened to that man since that day. He may have had a great awakening, and now attends Church weekly. He may have completely forgotten about me, my shirt, and Jesus, five minutes down the road. That’s not the point. The point is that, when someone needed help, I was there. And I brought Christ with me.
Evangelization isn’t a televangelist shouting at you through your TV, insisting Christ told them in a dream that you need to send 816 dollars and 74 cents to them, as you finish your third bowl of Captain Crunch cereal on a Saturday morning. It’s not necessarily standing on a street corner, screaming out of a bullhorn that the “end is near,” and we’re all going straight to hell if we don’t accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, while we get born again through a kiddie pool baptism during the pancake breakfast at the Evangelical Church of the New Dawn this coming Saturday by pastor Rob.
Evangelization is bringing Christ to your family, friends, neighbors and community by being Christ’s hands here on earth. It’s praying in the back seat of an Acura with a woman who just lost her daughter to drugs. It’s standing in a bank parking lot, telling a middle-aged man that Christ has never stopped looking for him, and would love to meet up with him next Saturday. It’s helping a college kid get back on the road with air in his tires and the belief that Jesus, at least today, has saved him.
Evangelization is doing what Christ expects, any time He asks.