Catholics canvas neighborhood to pray with residents, invite people to church

Volunteers from St. Thecla Parish and the Divine Mercy Center in Clinton Township pray with a homeowner in the neighborhood July 22. The door-to-door ministry was inspired by a similar effort in Detroit earlier this year, with volunteers seeking to foster “positive encounters” with the parish by talking, praying with and inviting people to parish events. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Inspired by Detroit parish's outreach, St. Thecla community sends dozens of volunteers out two by two to area homes

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Jesus told his apostles, “Knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Now, one Clinton Township parish is knocking on doors, inviting its neighbors to come visit or revisit the parish.

During his summer assignment as a transitional deacon at St. Thecla Parish, Deacon John Carlin is leading a “door-to-door evangelization” effort, a yearlong project in which volunteers will work to visit every house in the parish’s territory, bounded by 16 Mile Road, Gratiot, Groesbeck and 14 Mile Road.

The idea for the effort came from a similar ministry at St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish in Detroit, which was the subject of a Detroit Catholic story earlier this year, Deacon Carlin said.

Deacon John Carlin, right, instructs volunteers on the day's activities as Catholics prepare to canvas the neighborhood on July 22. 

“St. Thecla has its Fall Festival in September and the nearby Divine Mercy Center (also in Clinton Township) has its Fun Day in August, so we’re handing out fliers and tickets in brochures to people in the neighborhood,” Deacon Carlin told Detroit Catholic. “We’re giving away fliers, asking for prayer (requests) and inviting people back to Mass. If they have any needs, like a Bible to read or someone to bring a homebound person Communion, we work on that.”

The door-to-door ministry isn't direct evangelization or preaching, but “pre-evangelization” geared toward reintroducing people in the 4-square-mile area to St. Thecla and its place in the community. Deacon Carlin said “pre-evangelization” isn't about proclaiming the kerygma or Church dogma, but instead just inviting people to learn more about parish and its people.

St. Thecla parishioner Barbara Adragna was out with the group July 22, knocking on doors, leaving information and asking neighbors — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — for prayer requests.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for a couple of years now,” Adragna said. “Fr. Brian (Cokonougher, pastor of St. Thecla) and Deacon Tom (Houle) went door to door a few years ago, inviting people to the parish for Christmas and hearing their stories.” 

Volunteers pray together before heading out to hand out fliers and offer prayer intentions for residents in the community of St. Thecla Parish and the Divine Mercy Center.

Adragna said the goal was to recruit 72 volunteers — the same number of disciples sent by Jesus in Luke's Gospel — and send them out two by two, just as in Scripture.

“I think we were close to that number for the three days (July 21, 22 and 24),” Adragna said. “I feel the Holy Spirit is with us, and we have the permission and the authority to go into the community.”

Adragna also volunteered with St. Augustine and St. Monica's effort, where she was overcome with a profound sense of peace and joy in bringing Christ to complete strangers.

“I had these chills that I didn’t think I’d get, overcome with a very great sense of my freedom,” Adragna said. “All I could think was that in a different part of the world, I’d be risking my life talking about Christ. But here, I had this proud sense of just thanks to God for allowing us to do this — for our freedom to preach Christ.”

Often, when an evangelist knocks on the door, no one answers — save for the family dog. But for those who do answer, Deacon Carlin said the goal isn't to convert people on the spot, but to create a friendly moment of encounter in which the person feels loved and welcomed by the nearby parish.

Equipped with maps, fliers and rosaries, volunteers stroll through the neighborhood to talk to homeowners July 22.

Asking for prayer requests can open the door to the Holy Spirit in powerful ways, Deacon Carlin said.

“It can lead to spontaneous prayer,” Deacon Carlin said. “Some people don’t realize how much they needed that — just someone to pray with them.”

Fr. Cokonougher said it can also lead to powerful conversations with people who have felt hurt or abandoned by the Church, offering them a chance to feel heard. 

“As it says in Unleash the Gospel (Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s pastoral letter), shallow-entry points are very important,” Fr. Cokonougher said. “When we go door to door to promote a specific event (such as the parish festival), residents who are new to the area or from different backgrounds can come in and see what we’re about.”

While the goal is for parish teams to visit each house in the neighborhood within a year, Deacon Carlin stresses people — not numbers — are the focus. He also tells evangelists not to be discouraged by negative or indifferent reactions. 

“There is only so much you can do with ‘pre-evangelization,’ and sometimes you’re going to get that cold reaction,” Deacon Carlin said. “This is not a game of tag, trying to find the heretic and weed them out. If someone opens the doors and waves us away, that’s fine it’s not going to stop us from coming back next year. 

Volunteers pray with a homeowner July 22. While not everyone is receptive, Deacon Carlin said even a simple invitation can be “life-changing.”

“We are out there for the positive encounters, and we’ve had plenty of those. I tell people, there are too many houses on your list, so if you get a case where the people you meet catch fire, stop, stay with them, pray with them, be with them.”

From the abandoned house on the street corner to the two-story colonial with the neatly manicured lawn, each doorway encounter is as different as the person who occupies the house, said Carla Reyna, a member of the nearby Women of Jesus’ Merciful Passion community that is in formation at the Divine Mercy Center, who volunteered with the group.

“We stress that this isn’t about dropping off a flier or making a quick stop to tell people about the church,” Reyna said. “This is about taking the time to be with people. If they invite you in, use good discernment and join them, taking your time. 

“Nowadays, it’s almost outside-the-box to just sit and talk with someone,” Reyna continued. “But I think it’s the most powerful part of bringing the message of Jesus to people. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, getting out of that bubble, and as Jesus did in his ministry, to meet people where they are. They say Christ is in the person of whose door you’re knocking, so every door you knock on, that’s another chance to meet Christ.”