“Is that St. Anthony?”
Startled, I glanced up at the medical receptionist who asked the question as I was digging through my wallet for my insurance card. She placed her hand on her chest to indicate where my brown scapular dangled from my neck and repeated her question.
“No,” I replied. “It’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Simon Stock.”
She lowered her voice. “Are you Catholic?”
Still speaking in an undertone so she wouldn’t be overheard, the receptionist continued, “Have you heard of St. Padre Pio, the Miracle Saint? He saved my life from breast cancer.”
With that, she proceeded to show me her bracelet filled with saint charms and told me more about Padre Pio. As I swiped my debit card she pulled out a pad of sticky notes and, as if writing a prescription, wrote out, “Miracle Saint—St. Padre Pio.” She handed me the note as I turned to go and whispered, “God bless you.”
Over the years, I’ve been asked many times how Catholics can evangelize in the workplace. As I thought about my interaction with this receptionist, it occurred to me that she could probably give a seminar on workplace evangelism. Let’s look more closely at what happened and note the techniques she used that can be applied to other workplace environments.
1. Ask sincere questions that show genuine interest in the other person.
Relationship guru Dale Carnegie, famous for teaching effective people skills, wrote, “To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering.” He also emphasized the importance of sincerity, and cautioned that most people will be turned off by fake interest.
The first step the receptionist took was to ask me about my scapular. Many people wear jewelry or have body adornments, such as tattoos, that they are happy to talk about if asked. Asking about the meaning of a unique piece of jewelry or a prominent tattoo is one way to open a conversation with someone about his life.
These days it may seem imprudent to ask about a co-worker’s personal appearance, but genuine interest that’s respectfully expressed is usually accepted graciously by most people. Just be careful to heed any hints that the question is unwelcome.
2. Find common ground.
In the week following 9/11, an airline pilot contacted Catholic Answers to tell us of an encounter he’d had with one of the pilots who was killed that day. About a year before, he had shared a cockpit for a month with a pilot who was an Evangelical Christian. When the two pilots discovered they both came from a Catholic background, they enjoyed friendly debates over Catholicism during their time flying together. After the terrorist attacks, the Catholic pilot discovered that his colleague had managed to come back to the Church before his death, thanks in part to their conversations.
The concept of “finding common ground” is sometimes treated skeptically these days because some people think it has to mean watering down what you believe to make it palatable for others to accept. But “common ground” just means areas where we find that our lives overlap with other people’s lives. If two people discover they went to school together, or that both are parents of small children, or that they each grew up Catholic, those are areas of common ground that can serve as launch points for conversation. In the case of the pilot, he discovered that his co-worker was a former Catholic and drew him out on his reasons for leaving the Church. With the receptionist I met, she noticed my scapular and asked if I was Catholic.
3. Share your personal experiences.
Christian novelist Madeleine L’Engle wrote about a conversation with a friend, who observed, “Jesus was not a theologian. He was God who told stories.”
Stories grab our attention, fire our imagination, and keep us thinking long after a conversation has ended. If the receptionist had started out by telling me I should pray to Padre Pio for his intercession because he was a saint and could intercede for me within the mystical body of Christ, I might have made polite noises and forgotten her instruction as soon as I could get away. Instead, she caught my interest by telling me that Padre Pio had saved her life when she was stricken with breast cancer. She called him a “miracle saint.” Her testimony about Padre Pio’s concern for her was more inspiring than a lecture might have been—and more effective within the short amount of time she had to talk with me.
When you’re chatting with co-workers in the lunchroom or at a holiday party, stories are much more appealing than lectures. Slide in quotes from the Catechism after you’ve hooked your listener.
4. Offer resources after a conversation, not before.
The apologists here are often asked, “Is there a book or DVD I can give my friend that will answer the questions he has on [insert topic of choice]?” The inquirers usually want a book or DVD because they don’t feel comfortable talking to their friend and just want to hand off something that will answer his questions.
The receptionist waited until we’d finished our conversation to write down Padre’s Pio’s name and the information about him that she wanted me to remember—that he was a “miracle saint.” She first told me about him, her love for him, and what he was known for. Then she gave me the note as a “reminder” in case I was interested in looking up more information about him on my own. Even if your own presentation of the Faith leaves something to be desired, your enthusiasm may inspire people to want to learn more. That’s when you can offer to give them resources for better explanations offered by experts.
On-the-job evangelism may not be easy, but it’s possible and you don’t have to be a professional apologist—or an amateur apologist, for that matter—to do it well. You just have to genuinely care about other people and be able to project that love for them into your conversations about the Faith. As St. Paul wrote:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. . . . So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:1, 13).