The heat and humidity caused everyone to move a little
slowly, but it was a busy Saturday afternoon at the
Lakeforrest Transit Center in Gaithersburg, Md. A bag of
groceries at her feet, a mother of three young children wiped
away sweat as she waited for her bus. In front of her, a
young woman boarded a southbound bus on her way to a summer
lifeguarding job, while several yards away a shirtless man
danced to music streaming through his earphones.
Weaving in between the benches and clusters of waiting
people, a woman was connecting with individuals around a
different kind of journey - one centered on the soul.
Joanne Fields is an urban missionary with St. Paul Street
Evangelization, a grassroots nonprofit whose volunteers
hit the streets with the faith, evangelizing in a
nonconfrontational way. Fields, along with anywhere from five
to 15 missionaries, comes each week to the transit center -
or a nearby metro stop or grocery store - to share "Jesus'
love and mercy," she said.
The 39-year-old alumna of Christendom College in Front Royal
is founder and team leader of the Gaithersburg chapter of
SPSE, as well as one of the first full-time missionaries with
the organization. Started in Portland, Ore., in 2012 and now
based in Indiana, SPSE includes more than 200 street
evangelization teams worldwide, including in Honduras, Japan
and Sweden. Some chapters are started by parishes, others by
individuals. In the Arlington Diocese, there are chapters in
Fairfax, Fredericksburg and South Riding; the Richmond
Diocese has missionaries in Virginia Beach. Fields is in the
process of forming a new team in the Alexandria-Arlington
SPSE provides materials and training for chapters and
promotes a joy-filled and relational approach to
evangelization. "No one wants to feel judged or told what to
do," said Fields.
Missionaries typically go up to an individual and offer a
rosary, asking if the person knows how to pray with it. "We
go from there based on what they say," said Fields. "The
people are wonderful and receptive. Some of them are not
interested, and we respect that."
Fields took an online SPSE training course to start the
Gaithersburg chapter and underwent additional training to be
a full-time missionary. Her work primarily is supported by
donations from friends and personal connections. Along with
Saturday's outings, Fields does "low-key" weekday street
evangelizing, runs a small group for people she's met on the
streets, prays regularly and organizes new teams.
'A turning point'
Fields' zeal for evangelization sprung in part from a
profound encounter with God.
At a retreat about four years ago, "I had an amazing
experience of Jesus' love for me," she said. "I'd been going
to daily Mass for 20 years, but until then, the Lord's love
for me personally never really penetrated. That was a turning
She also felt the Lord directing her to a specific priest -
now Auxiliary Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of the St. Paul and
"He taught me how to pray; he truly evangelized me," said
Fields. "I knew the good news in an abstract way, but finally
it reached me" on a deeper level.
Fields was left with an overwhelming desire to share the
happiness and peace she felt with others.
However, as "somewhat of an introvert," she remembers feeling
"terrified" the first time she joined friends evangelizing at
a bus stop. Yet as He always does, God gave her the needed
boost, she said.
Fields recalled there "was this big muscular dude" donning a
Statue of Liberty costume to advertise Liberty Tax Service.
"And I was like, wow, if this guy can do that advertising for
money, I can hand out little prayer cards for God."
All about relationship
At the transit center on the recent Saturday, Fields was
joined by a handful of teammates, as well as Father
Christopher Goodwin, secretary to the papal nuncio at the
apostolic nunciature in Washington and the team's spiritual
Rosaries of all colors, blessed miraculous medals, prayer
cards and information about nearby parishes rested on a small
table, ready to be shared with passersby.
Over the course of two hours, Fields had a conversation about
what constitutes a consecrated host, encouraged a man to come
to a Catholic church rather than start his own, and prayed
with and for numerous people. A crucifix dangling from her
neck, Fields approached each person with a smile and gentle
"The best thing you have to offer as an evangelizer is
yourself, just who you are as He has formed you," said Father
Goodwin. "You don't have to have all the answers."
Fields added that one of the misconceptions about
evangelization is that it's about apologetics. But most
encounters with people - who range from the wealthy to the
poor and include those with no faith, a different faith
tradition and Catholics who've drifted from the church - are
"about having a normal conversation with (them)
sharing the joy of God's love through relationship."
"God is triune, He is love," she said. "As soon as you show
someone love and respect, you are imaging for them who God
is, and it gives them hope."
Fields said some people are hesitant to evangelize out of
"fear of seeming weird," which at its heart is the "fear of
But she said the gap between ourselves and others is really a
lie - one we can cross with communication and faith and that
is easier to bridge "the more times you jump it."
The most important thing to remember when evangelizing is
that "it's not about us," she said.
If someone walks away from you, it's easy to think of it as
failure, said Fields. "But it doesn't depend on us as
missionaries." The job is to plant the seeds and let God make
"I bumble through things, and He makes something beautiful
out of it."
Find out more
For more information about how to be an evangelist or how you
can support St. Paul Street Evangelization, go here
Joanne Fields offers a talk for parishes called "10 Great
Ways to Be an Amazing Evangelist." Email her at SPSEgaithersburg@gmail.com.