Door by door, volunteers brighten neighborhood by bringing the Gospel to the community

Genevieve Kocourek, right, evangelization coordinator at St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish on Detroit's east side, laughs during a visit with a neighbor in January as part of the parish's door-to-door evangelization program. The program, in which volunteers go out into the neighborhood two by two, seeks to invite people to visit the parish, offer Bibles to those who don't have one, ask questions about Catholicism or simply pray with a volunteer who cares. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Special to Detroit Catholic)   

St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish's neighborhood evangelization program breaks down barriers, misconceptions

DETROIT — Door by door, two by two, volunteers from Detroit’s St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish are marching through their neighborhood streets proclaiming the Gospel to each home — and sometimes even gas stations and liquor stores.

And with the recent help of two grants from the Catholic Foundation of Michigan, they are knocking on even more doors by reaching additional Detroit neighborhoods.

“A lot of people actually thank us for what we do and a lot of them say they didn’t know that Catholics do this (going from door to door),” said Genevieve Kocourek, evangelization coordinator at the east-side Detroit parish. She heads the door-to-door program, along with other evangelization efforts at the parish, such as a women’s Bible study and youth groups.

Kocourek said sharing the Gospel message with everyone — from the homeless on the street to neighborhood homeowners and everyone in between — is an integral part of being a Christian.

“There’s always a need,” Kocourek said. “We are sharing Jesus’ mission of sharing the Gospel and saving souls.”

Each year, the parish volunteers and a few seminarians set out to make it to as many houses within the parish boundaries as possible. It’s a task that could take a couple years to complete, considering many houses there are, and they often make follow-up visits if someone is in need of prayer, a Bible or even more information.

Genevieve Kocourek, left, and Tyrone Morton visit neighborhood houses during an outing in January as part of St. Augustine and St. Monica's neighborhood evangelization program.

“We just let the Holy Spirit lead us,” Kocourek added. “Sometimes we go because people are open, and sometimes, we go back because people are very far off from the Lord.”

The residents are invited to pray with their home visitor and are asked about their family and what church they attend, if any. Most importantly, volunteers seek to open a dialogue and begin to build a relationship.

“I try not to look at it as ‘How am I going to evangelize this person?’ but rather ‘How am I going to love this person as Christ would love him or her,’” Kocourek said.

There are about eight parishioners who regularly help, going two by two, unless it’s a return visit, when Kocourek or another volunteer go on their own. In the winter months, volunteers rotate with someone in a warm car following them. Some volunteers visit local nursing homes in the area and offer Bible studies or individually pray with the residents.

And since the volunteers are parishioners, they are familiar and comfortable approaching their neighbors’ homes and local businesses that welcome them.

“We encourage the volunteers to be prayerful and love everyone they meet,” Kocourek added. “If people aren’t interested, that’s OK, and we move on.”

Though a significant number of home visits appear to be fruitless on the surface, the true benefit might be in getting someone to consider praying again, or simply thinking about the Lord, Kocourek said. The true impact of the visit might sink in later on and lead to more conversations — which is evidenced by the fact that some residents ask for the volunteers to return, or may attend a church function or go to Mass.

Kocourek and Morton pray with a homeowner during a visit Jan. 9. Kocourek said while some home visits don't produce immediate effects, people are often surprised at the openness of the volunteers to pray with them, and many ask the volunteers to return a second time.

Spreading an idea

The success of St. Augustine and St. Monica’s program is part of the reason the parish received a grant from the Catholic Foundation to help train others in the best practices of door-to-door evangelization. 

Fr. Patrick Gonyeau, associate pastor at Corpus Christi Parish in northwest Detroit, said his parish already has a door-to-door program called "Visiting Our Neighbors," but it is in need of revitalization. With the help of the grant, Kocourek will help evaluate the program, giving the Corpus Christi volunteers some insights and pointers to help the program become more fruitful.

“Visiting our neighbors is so important because Jesus said, 'Go and make disciples,'” Fr Gonyeau said, adding it’s necessary to reach everyone, especially those on the periphery.

Though every parish, neighborhood and situation may be different, Kocourek said spreading the Gospel through word of mouth is an indispensable tool in the evangelist's toolkit. 

“If you don’t go out and teach the Gospel, how will you see the fruits of it?” she said. Home visits are “a simple way to do that and our parish and our neighbors have been blessed by it.”

Fr. Gonyeau said supporting the neighborhood with practical needs like food and specialized programs, as well as offering spiritual support, helps evangelization efforts in an area that is less than 10 percent Catholic.

Msgr. Daniel Trapp, pastor of St. Augustine and St. Monica, agrees. He started a less intense version of the door-to-door program when he came to the parish in 1995, but it was only recently that the program has taken on a stronger presence.

A sign in a window of a home in the neighborhood of St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish reads "Jesus First." 

He, too, is reaching out to an area that has very few Catholics. While many people are open to hearing about Jesus, their interaction with the Church might be limited to their experiences with Catholic hospitals, schools or charitable ministries.

And there are a lot of misconceptions.

“Some people think we sing opera songs at church,” Msgr. Trapp said.

In addition to sharing information about the faith, the mission of the door-to-door program is to give every home within the parish boundaries a Bible if there is an interest in one. The volunteers also pray with people they encounter and answer questions. Msgr. Trapp said there are no “sales pitches” or “foot in the door” techniques.

“It’s a way of breaking down some of the isolation that happens,” Msgr. Trapp said, adding parishes can risk becoming "little islands" without a conscious effort to reach out to the community.

As Detroit’s neighborhoods slowly rebound, and people begin moving back to the area, active evangelization can be a way to invite others to experience what the parish has to offer. 

Tyrone Morton, a parishioner for nearly 50 years at St. Augustine and St. Monica, volunteers for the door-to-door program because he wants to see more youth involved in the parish. And though some people shy away from engaging in a conversation, most welcome it.

“What we do is a mission,” Morton said. “We hope to bring more people to the church for future generations.”

Genevieve Kocourek, left, and Tyrone Morton are among eight regular volunteers with St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish's door-to-door evangelization program.

Having 'genuine' interactions

Anton Spann recently joined the RCIA program after meeting members of the St. Augustine and St. Monica door-to-door program at their food pantry while looking for a cup of coffee.

At first, he was afraid someone would chase him out because he wasn’t Catholic.

“I was amazed; they were really nice,” Spann said. “They came over to pray, and I was surprised someone wanted to pray with me.”

Spann had been attending church services all his life, but felt different when he engaged in conversations with the evangelization team.

“I continued to keep listening,” Spann said. “They didn’t do a lot of hollering like I was used to. It was genuine.”

After that, all it took was an invitation to Mass, and Spann was hooked.

“So I went, and I’ve been going ever since.” Spann said, adding his wife joined the women’s Bible study program at the church.

He is intrigued by all he is learning about the Catholic faith, especially when it comes to the Eucharist.

“You can feel the spirit in these people,” Spann said. “You can’t miss the spirit during Communion.”

It was such a spirit of evangelization, as well as the personal nature of St. Augustine and St. Monica’s program, that impressed Angela Moloney, president and CEO of the Catholic Foundation of Michigan.

“The program is a holistic and dynamic evangelization program that complements and strengthens many existing ministries like the local food pantry with evangelizing, prayers and spiritual counsel,” Moloney said.

Genevieve Kocourek walks along a fence while visiting neighbors Jan. 9. “If you don’t go out and teach the Gospel, how will you see the fruits of it?” she said. Home visits are “a simple way to do that, and our parish and our neighbors have been blessed by it.”

"It's a true example of unleashing the Gospel," Moloney said. "That's why we felt so strongly about supporting it."