Catholic group evangelizes in the streets

The rosaries David Zebolsky held captured Julie Cahoj’s attention.
A Catholic from Salina, Kan., Cahoj was walking through the Old Market on a recent Saturday morning when she saw Zebolsky and other members of Omaha’s St. Paul Street Evangelization (SPSE) team. She stopped to discuss the organization and praise the evangelists.
“I typically never stop for street preachers, but I stopped because I’m familiar with St. Paul Evangelization and I saw he had the rosaries,” she said. “I don’t have the courage to do what he’s doing. I wish I did.”
During the year’s warmer months, members of the Omaha area’s SPSE team gather Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons in the Old Market to celebrate their love of Jesus and share the truths of God’s word and their Catholic faith.
“We offer a greeting to people passing by. Typically, we’ll ask if they’re interested in receiving a Divine Mercy holy card,” said Zebolsky, a member of Christ the King Parish in Omaha and a founder of the Omaha SPSE team. “It’s just a gentle invitation of our Lord.”
A grassroots organization founded in 2012 by Michigan layman Steve Dawson, SPSE has spread to more than 300 communities worldwide. The apostolate, guided by an advisory board that includes Catholic bishops and priests, is dedicated to preaching the Gospel and bringing the church to the streets of the communities it serves through prayer, non-confrontational dialogue and distributing holy cards, rosaries, Bibles and informational materials. 
Zebolsky’s pastor at Christ the King, Father Damien Cook, isn’t directly affiliated with SPSE, but said he appreciates the team’s efforts.
“I think they are filling a necessary need, which is to remind everybody that we’re all called to evangelize,” Father Cook said. “At some point, all Catholics should be intentional about trying to be proud of Jesus and happy to share what we receive with others because salvation depends on it.”
The Omaha team consists of nearly 40 evangelists, including Vic Stevenart, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha. A convert to Catholicism in 1966, Stevenart said the experience with SPSE has been spiritually uplifting.
“It’s beautiful. It reminds me of a time in my life when I didn’t know what God had in store for me,” he said. “As my spiritual director told me years ago, spread light, not heat.”
Fellow evangelist Kathy Bagby of St. Gerald Parish in Ralston said Pope Francis’ emphasis on evangelization has “trickled down” to local churches and is having a meaningful impact.
“I had a guy last year who I asked if he would like a rosary and he kind of got all broken up,” she said. “He had been away from the church. After we talked to him for a while, he was going to go to confession that night.”
Maris Bentley, a member of Church of the Holy Spirit Parish in Plattsmouth who helped found Omaha SPSE when she was a member of Christ the King, said her street evangelization experience has been a blessing.
“It is such a joyful experience,” she said. “Yes, sometimes people do glare or look condescendingly at us as we stand there with our holy cards and rosaries, but every single time I have come away from these street encounters knowing that I have touched lives and knowing that my own life and faith have been impacted positively as a result.”
Zebolsky sees the evangelization program as a good fit for the archdiocese’s pastoral vision of “One church: encountering Jesus, equipping disciples and living mercy” announced in 2016.
“This is kind of a first contact. We meet people on the street and maybe in some cases introduce them to the church or invite them back,” he said. “It fits in well because we need to be evangelists in that way in our day-to-day life. From what I understand of what the archdiocese is doing, they’re encouraging Catholics to live their faith first and then to share it.”
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