Art covers the walls of a hip storefront in downtown Waterloo, Iowa. On the Saturday before Halloween, 500 kids make their way inside to claim a piece of candy, with an open invitation to return in a few weeks to watch The Wizard of Oz. On a Friday evening dozens pack into the building to watch and discuss the original Star Wars film from 1977. Another evening a few people meet around a table to talk about what it is like either being or knowing a gay Catholic. And yet another evening an eclectic mix of homeless, hungry, and well-fed people gather to share a community meal.
None of this may look like sharing the gospel, but according to Ellen Kuchera, one of the creators of COR at 220 East, this is where the heart of evangelization is taking place. COR, Latin for heart, is a project sponsored by the four Waterloo parishes with the primary goal of making connections between the church and the broader community. The project is intended to respond directly to the mandate that Pope Francis gave at World Youth Day in 2013: “I want a mess. I want to see the Church get closer to the people. . . . We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel.”
I tend to associate evangelization with evangelical Protestants asking whether I have asked Jesus into my heart as my lord and savior. With the rising importance of evangelization in the Catholic Church, I have admittedly struggled with what this means for me, a cradle Catholic intensely uncomfortable with anything that smacks of imposing my own views on others.
Pope Francis has attempted to respond to confusion like mine with a papacy focused on evangelization—which consists not of “imposing new obligations” or proselytizing but rather of a church living out its joy and sharing its wealth of beauty, of culture, of resources with its neighbor. It is “by attraction” that the church grows, he writes in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
COR, which at first glance is not an obviously Catholic place, is attempting to help Catholics rediscover the joy of their faith and forge bridges of trust with the broader community so that this joy might be shared. Movie nights, concerts, and art shows, all of which are open to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, are a crucial part of spreading the gospel because they create opportunities for lapsed Catholics and non-Christians to have positive encounters with Catholics.
“There is no greater turnoff and insincerity than agenda-driven evangelization,” says Kuchera. At COR the goal is not to get people in the door so that they start coming to church but rather to get them in the door so that they know—and so that Catholics like me are reminded—that they are already beloved by Christ and by Christ’s church. The goal is to form a relationship with the hope that the real work of evangelization, the work of the Holy Spirit, can be achieved. This, it seems, is how Catholic evangelization ought to be done.
This article also appears in the February 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 2, page 10).
Image: Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash