Although it was over ninety degrees, the women were attacking their piles of clothes in wash bins placed near the road. Each was up to her elbows in soap and suds, washing clothes as her mother and grandmother had washed them.
I bit my lower lip as we slowly approached them. This was our first time out evangelizing in Tijuana, Mexico.
One of the women lifted her head and gazed at us, and I could only imagine the words running through her head: gringos, gueros (Mexican slang for whites), Testigos de Jehovah (Jehovah's Witnesses). The area we had chosen to evangelize was filled several times a week with evangelists from the sects. We were not alone in our efforts. How was this woman to know that the three of us were from three different nations and sought to share our Catholic faith with her?
The other women lifted up their heads as we neared the fence that separated us from them. With poor Spanish, hand gestures, and smiles we communicated that we were Catholics--Missionaries of Charity Fathers--and that we wanted to invite them to Mass the following Sunday. In the end they returned our smiles and agreed to come. That was the beginning. We had inaugurated our task of reclaiming our sheep who had gone astray.
It was a difficult beginning for us two years ago, here in Colonia Murua in Tijuana. We had received no training, and we had participated in no workshops or classes before hitting the streets. Our knowledge of Scripture was not poor, but it was lacking the necessary finesse needed to go point-for-point with a well-trained and well-practiced separated brother or sister. In those days we had nothing more than a mandate from our superior, Fr. Joseph, M.C., to go out as the first disciples had gone out, two by two, and to spread the Good News.
As I look back I see it was enough--more than enough, in fact. We began to see results almost immediately. In the beginning we had only a handful of people coming to Mass, and now we have two Sunday Masses because the church can't hold all our people at once. Many of them have come back to the Church through personal contact or oral invitation. They are the fruit of evangelization.
As Missionaries of Charity Fathers, the newest branch of the Missionaries of Charity family begun by Mother Teresa, we believe our aim is "to announce and satiate the great `thirst' of God for man, and man for God, revealed for all ages in Jesus' great cry of thirst from the cross (John 19:29)." These words are from our constitution. Our mission is to serve the poorest of the poor by means of our priestly ministry. Evengelization is critical for our work since it is our duty to go out in search of souls, especially the "last, least, and lost," and bring them back to the Church.
The Missionaries of Charity Fathers began in the South Bronx six years ago. There some of us began our street apostolate. I can't forget the first night. Fr. Joseph, several weeks before Pentecost 1987, called us together as a community and commissioned us to imitate the disciples. One of the seminarians and I went down the street together, filled with a presence of the Holy Spirit and a new-found zeal to evangelize, something neither of us had ever done before.
We walked in front of a crack house (an apartment building filled with cocaine users, pushers, and prostitutes), looking for an opportunity to witness. A few seconds later a man came running out of the building with a woman close behind him. She was swearing at the top of her lungs and was trying to jab him with the jagged edge of a broken bottle.
We naively tried to intervene, but to no avail--they were both under the influence of drugs or alcohol. As the man approached a parked car, a small boy motioned us over to the curb. He told us we should leave quickly because the man kept a gun in his car and "there's goin' to be some shootin'."
We stood on the curb and prayed the Memorarae, hoping nothing would happen. Suddenly the man jumped in his car and drove away, leaving the screaming woman behind. This was our first lesson about street ministry: Evangelization does not always involve face-to-face communication. Sometimes it just means standing in the distance and praying.
Our community moved to Tijuana, which is immediately across the border from San Diego, in 1988 so we could be more immersed in a mission environment. Here we have continued and expanded our missionary program. Some have estimated the population of Tijuana at three million, many of whom have arrived only in the last five years.
We've found that most people we meet were baptized as Catholics, but many have left the Church under the influence of Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and miscellaneous sectarians. Most of our contact has been with the Jehovah's Witnesses, who are very strong here.
Our program has become better organized in the last two years, and our seminarians and priests have become more knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of effective evangelization. Some of our seminarians have drawn up a map of local areas and have highlighted certain sectors. There they go several times a week, moving door to door, visiting, talking, sharing the Word of God. About a year ago we began training a group of lay people to evangelize. They are on the streets three or four hours each week, and they meet weekly for a class and a holy hour.
Many different things occur in our apostolate. I don't want to tell the whole story myself. I've asked my confreres to help. A seminarian from France, Gilles, describes his experience this way:
The place I am going is called Laguna or Rancho Riviera, but there are no blue lakes, no white sand, no palm trees, no beautiful river. There are only sixty houses made of salvage wood or cardboard, covered with plastic tarps, and built in a dump, which is bordered on one side by a dirty pond where the people wash their clothes and, at times, bathe. The families living here come from different parts of Mexico, so they have no common cultural roots, no common education, no common history. Their lives are among the poorest in Tijuana.
One Friday last January, one of the other seminarians asked me to take a van and pick up the children in this area for catechism. He was unable to go himself. He had been going every week, but for me it would be the first time. I left the house in the van.
When I arrived, I began ringing the handbell. Soon they came running to the van, shouting "Padre! Padre!" Two mothers came up to me and said, "Why don't you come here and organize something? The Evangelicals have a small church, but we Catholics don't have anything. What kind of example are we able to give?"
This made a strong impression on me, and I felt called to do something. I confided my desire to begin something in that area to my religious superior, and soon after he assigned me the task of evangelization. I had no prior experience, nor did the other seminarian assigned to work with me.
We decided to entrust our apostolate to our Blessed Mother. To express this consecration concretely, and to help us be more aware of her presence, we placed a Miraculous Medal in the earth near these homes. It is helpful before leaving our house, during our work, and when returning home to realize that Mary is already there, working with us, and that she will always remain with our people.
Beginning our work was difficult because this area contains a diverse group of people. For the most part, they have been baptized but do not practice their faith. They live in situations which have kept them far from the Church, and many separated brethren visit their homes on a regular basis.
Our purpose was to give them a sense of Christian community in which all will have a part and feel welcome. This is hard work, and at times it seems to be going slowly, but we have no competence to judge the work of the Lord. All we want to do is follow his will.
I am firmly convinced that a call to evangelize is one which must lead us to live more deeply our primary call, our state of life. In evangelization we discover that to bear fruit or to be a channel for the people is to live more fully. If we skip over this, our evangelization work will fail because we will be seeking to do our own work, not the work of the Lord. Please pray for the people of Laguna and for those the Lord is sending there.
That was Gilles's report. Let me tell you about another activity of ours. Each Friday night seminarians go into downtown Tijuana. They divide themselves into pairs. Some enter the red-light district to evangelize the homeless, drunks, prostitutes, and addicts. Others walk to the nearby frontera (the border), where men, women, and children are lined up to cross illegally into the U.S.
Here our work touches the lives of families that have come up from southern Mexico and from Central and South America, coyotes (the guides who are paid to sneak people across), gang members, and onlookers.
Our evangelization also leads us into other areas of Tijuana, such as La Mesa, the location of the famous prison. We go into detention homes, to the central bus depot, and to hospitals. Each week a pair of seminarians visits a section of the city where there is a clump of apartment buildings housing five thousand families. Mass is said in the parking lot. Here is an account of their experience given by Vittorio, who is from Malta, and by Gregory, who is from Poland:
We have discovered in our apostolate that where there is no Catholic presence in these colonias (poor sections of town), it means the entrance and growth of the Jehovah's Witnesses and of Protestant evangelization--often with much success. We are confronted with the question how we, two Catholic seminarians who speak mediocre Spanish, can bring Christ to a community where there is no church building and no resident priest. Here is how we try to respond.
We arrive early Sunday mornings, walking into the area and praying together. We have a prayer group which meets at 9:30 in the house of a woman who suffers from cancer. Usually there are six or seven present; sometimes they bring their friends or family. We pray together, then read the Gospel of the day.
Then we hit the streets with sheets that contain the Sunday reading and a message from the Holy Father. These sheets are distributed at random--to a man selling newspapers, to a woman washing clothes, to youths playing ball. We invite them all to Mass, share with them the thoughts of the Gospel reading, and in this way communicate friendship and build relationships.
On these Sunday mornings it is guaranteed that we'll meet Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses who are out evangelizing. They're surprised to see us. It's a surprise also for the people to see Catholic missionaries. (Some didn't even know we existed!) For them it's more than a surprise; it's a sign of hope.
Some mornings we meet young men already drinking their cervezas (beer). By our mere presence we are not so much challenging them as awakening them to a Catholic identity, an identity which is so rich for the people in Mexico. We gather these young men together and try to share with them the gospel for about five minutes. They come together happily.
We hope our presence is touching the people of the colonias. We are convinced a bond is slowly growing. Now, at times, the people stop and wave or call to us, wanting us to stop and talk a while. Rather than expecting conversions overnight, we find we are bringing hope to people who had been overwhelmed with questions and doubts about their faith. By our prayers, visits, and encouragement, we plant small seeds of faith, and from them will sprout Christ's kingdom.
As Vittorio and Gregory will attest, our ministry has had considerable success with the youth. Last year meetings began on a weekly basis, and now the Jovenes de Maria (Mary's Youth) come together several times weekly for Mass, choir practice, holy hour, apostolic endeavors, and discussion groups.
These young people, more than sixty of them, evangelize in our colonia. They try to find other youths and invite them to meetings or simply share a few words about God. One of our seminarians has been organizing some of their activities and here shares his thoughts. Jorge is a "native"--he's from Tijuana.
The youth apostolate is one of the works of the Church that is most necessary now. Evangelization of youth is critical because they're the Church's future.
From the first moment of his existence, a human being needs love. Sometimes this love is sought in vain because it is sought apart from God. Often one seeks love and acceptance in places where only evil exists (drugs, alcohol abuse, pornography). Even today's poor youths are influenced by the mass media and find materialism attractive.
In evangelizing them the key is to help them discover meaning in their lives and to have them meet with other youths who, like them, long for spiritual nourishment, peace in their hearts, and joy in their lives. Our youth group in this colonia goes door to door carrying the message of love for others. One member had this to say:
"Thanks for the experiences I have had within this youth group. They have given me the courage to evangelize, to invite other youths to meet God, to give my life to him in faith, and to feel the happiness you can't find in drugs or other earthly temptations.
"These things deny the happiness which is found only in the Lord. I find now that I'm not afraid to share the Word of the Lord with others. Before, I was ashamed to talk about my faith.
"I used to think to myself, 'How can I go door to door? People will laugh at me.' Now I am ashamed I ever felt like that. There are many young people who need help. We should try to place one tiny seed in their hearts. The Lord will help them bear fruit."
Jorge and others who have assisted me with this article will agree that several principles have surfaced during the short time we have been working in Tijuana. This list is not exhaustive. It is meant, instead, as an aid to those who would like to join our work. I entitle this section "The Four P's of Street Preaching."
1. PRAYER: This is the foundation of our ministry. As Missionaries of Charity, our goal is to be "contemplatives in the heart of the world," as Mother Teresa put it. We must offer ourselves to God in prayer before we even leave the house.
It is our custom to recite the "Prayer for the Apostolate" and conclude with a short song to our Blessed Mother. It begins, "Be with us Mary along the way, guide us every step we take." Our prayer does not end there but continues on the street as we pray the rosary to and from our destinations.
In addition to formal prayer, each of us contemplates the Word of God in the silence of his heart so he will be refreshed and renewed. Each day our community has two hours in which to ponder and pray to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. These points of contact and reunion with our Lord enable us to receive the strength needed to go back into the world.
2. PROOFS: There is no substitute for study. To evangelize effectively our seminarians and priests must be well prepared. Their primary textbook is, of course, the Bible. Some have compiled lists of important quotations pertaining to topics commonly raised in discussions: the Eucharist, baptism, the divinity of Jesus, our Blessed Mother, idolatry and graven images, the primacy of Peter.
It's certainly fair play to write out a list of topics and the corresponding passages and to place the list in your Bible before leaving. Most of our discussions are based on Scripture, so we have to know the Bible, yet we also must be knowledgeable about our catechism and doctrine if we are to translate those scriptural passages into our faith.
One of our priests brought a dying, agnostic philosopher back into the Church. The man was on his hospital deathbed, and the priest went point-for-point with him. In the end he asked for confession, received Viaticum, and died soon after.
3. PRACTICE: The only way to learn how to evangelize is to evangelize. It's hard work. I'm not sure that with practice it gets any easier. On a human level it is always difficult to approach a stranger and engage him in conversation about the faith. Yet the beauty in all this is that we have a great message to share with him: the Word of God. Results come slowly, but they do come.
One afternoon two of us spent three hours in a small shack in an area called the Eagle's Nest, talking with Jehovah's Witnesses. We had begun by visiting one family every Sunday when we came out to invite people to Mass. The father of this particular family was a fallen-away Catholic, but he was always warm and friendly to us.
Apparently the local Jehovah's Witnesses leaders got wind of our meetings and were waiting for us one Sunday. We sat down and debated with a room packed with their families and friends. We touched all the main topics. That day seemed to be a draw; neither side was willing to concede. From that day on they did not speak to us, and their families were not even allowed to say hello. But the man we had been visiting became friendlier, and we are still hoping he will return to the Church.
4. PATIENCE: This word points to charity as the foundation of our work. There will always be a temptation to be drawn into a heated discussion, to let our tempers flare, to make cutting remarks, yet we must be more concerned with making a good impression. If I believe what I have to share is important, credible, and life-changing, my own faith and zeal will touch others in a way I might not even be aware of. "It is by your love for one another that everyone will recognize you as my disciples" (John 13:35).