The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Want to be a Techno-Evangelist?

Back when I was in my mid-teens I would often take the train from Larchmont, our Westchester County suburb, to New York City. It was a short trip to Grand Central Station, less than a half-hour, and in those days of low crime rates there was little reason for my folks to worry about my safety. I know I never felt the least bit threatened. Anyway, I never went alone, and was always joined by one or more friends.

On one of these outings, after arriving at Grand Central my friend and I took the subway down to Cortlandt Street in lower Manhattan. The two of us were ham radio fanatics and in those days Cortlandt Street was the home of a number of unique stores where you could buy military surplus radio equipment at very low prices. Called "radio row' the area later became the site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. After spending our scarce dollars on a few electronic treasures, we strolled around lower Manhattan making our way toward Greenwich Village, stopped to buy a hot dog and orange drink at a local Nedick's (a now-defunct early fast-food chain), and sat in a park to eat and watch the people.
A slice of "Radio Row" in lower Manhattan

It was then and there that I encountered my first street-corner evangelist, a man who seemed pretty old to me at the time. (He was probably in his 50s.) We watched as he entered the park carrying a wooden easel-like stand which he set up at a strategic location where two paths intersected. A sign on the front of the easel read, "Catholic Evidence Guild." He stood on a step behind the sign and began to speak. Completely captivated, I listened as he spoke about Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life in the Gospel. At the time I had never heard of the Guild which I later discovered was popularized in both England and the US by Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, the famous husband and wife publishing team who founded Sheed & Ward.

Within a few minutes a small crowd of perhaps ten people had formed, seemingly interested in what this lone, enthusiastic apologist for the Catholic faith had to say. Even my friend Eric -- a Jewish boy from the very upscale town of Purchase, NY -- was impressed and later on, as we rode the train back home, asked me a steady stream of questions about what this street-corner preacher had said. As a product of a Catholic education, I knew a bit more than the basics and answered as well as I could. One thing my friend said has remained with me over the years: "When he began to talk about religion, it just seemed so out of place there in the park. But then listening to him I realized that religion is really about everything, isn't it?"

I found myself revisiting this 50-year-old experience when I read about a conference that will be hosted by Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire. The conference, "Christ and the New Media", is scheduled for August 4-7 and will focus on the use of new media, particularly the internet, to "serve the Church and spread the Gospel." The Catholic Evidence Guild used -- and I presume still uses -- more traditional means to accomplish these same ends, but the times, they are a-changin'. We can still speak to people gathered in the park to eat their lunch on a nice summer day, but we can reach millions more around the globe through the internet. Websites, Facebook, Twitter, email and, yes, even blogs can help the Church carry out its mission to take the Gospel to those who might never hear God's Word. This is something Pope Benedict has been encouraging from the beginning of his papacy. After all, Christ's call to evangelize is universal; no Christian is exempt. And the internet offers a wonderful opportunity for Christians to respond to the command to evangelize "all nations."

It's too bad the conference isn't being held right now, because we're currently visiting one of our daughters who lives only a short drive from Merrimack. Unfortunately, in early August Diane and I will be on our way to Iowa to attend the wedding of the son of dear friends. But even though I can't be there, it would be fitting for the conference highlights to be published online. We'll see.

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