Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ecumenism by the Numbers

Brother Craig Digman is the first to say that he has a very unique ministry.

He states this with some resignation, as any trailblazer would hope others will follow.  "This is a ministry that nobody is going to do like I do," he admits. 

Br. Craig is absolutely certain that he has a calling to reach out to non-Catholic Churches and visit a rather large number of them.  He feel strongly called to build bridges between Christian denominations and reduce misunderstandings.

Br. Craig is part of the Glenmary mission in Union and Grainger Counties in eastern Tennessee which began in the summer of 2011.  Along with Fr. Steve Pawelk and Bro. Joe Steen, they have established two new Catholic parishes in places that have never had a Catholic church before.

"As a brother, the primary job at first was to help Fr. Steve get the missions up and running."  This started with visits to existing parishes and doing lots of door knocking.  "It just snowballed from there," recounted Br. Craig.  "You get talking to people, they invite you to where they are going, that leads you to something else, then they say, 'hey, have you ever been to...' and it just builds and builds." 

He started having similar conversations with just about anyone he would meet.  What began as outreach to build up the Catholic parishes has turned into a dynamic ministry of presence where this Catholic brother has so far visited and befriended dozens of churches of various denominations all over the two county area.


To date, he has attended worship services at 68 non-Catholic churches of various denominations, all within the last 3 years.  Most of them have never had a Catholic visit in their entire history. 

He has been invited to 138 churches.

There are around 22 churches where he has developed a deeper relationship, where it feels "like family."  This has often involved multiple visits to these communities.

He has also developed close relationships to pastors and parishioners of churches he has yet to visit.

He keeps record of the count as well as information about future visits, pending invitations and places for follow-up.  These numbers change almost daily.

He estimates there are about 210 churches in these two counties.  Many of them are virtually unknown to outsiders, as they may be small operations with just a family or two.  Case in point:  At a recent Pastor Appreciate Dinner, a local Gideon's group invited only 75 pastors.  Granted, this was just one county but it seems they might have missed a few.

The numbers are staggering, no doubt about it.  He is constantly inviting people to visit a Catholic Mass and takes them up on their invitations to visit their respective churches.  He takes the invitations seriously and tries to go to as many as possible. 

He recognizes that in a different time and place, this ministry might have evolved differently.  He spent a lot of time at the beginning questioning whether to develop deep relationships with a few churches or more causal relationships with many.  The decision was made as the ministry simply took on a life of its own, and he followed the Spirit.

The numbers can be a discouragement for others to follow.  Yet, if we see beyond the numbers there is much that any person of goodwill can learn from the example of Br. Craig.

The Method:  Presence

Br. Craig  is very intentional about his attitude and demeanor on these visits.  "When I go in most of these churches, I'm the first ever Catholic to step foot in their church.  How I'm dressed determines how they perceive a Catholic to be.  If I'm in blue jeans, they'll probably assume Catholics wear blue jeans!"  Sometimes a casual look is ingratiating, but he dresses better-than-causal to show respect.  It is better to err on the side of being too formal rather than too casual, he figures.

There is responsibility in this.  For better or for worse, he knows that how he conducts himself is going to reflect on how Catholics in general are perceived.  He keeps this in mind and takes it seriously.  He is polite and makes conversation easily.

Br. Craig (left) singing Sanctuary at an ecumenical service
 with musicians from Revival Vision Church (right).

During services, if there is an invitation, he goes up in front and sings "Sanctuary," which includes a third verse he wrote.  If there is an opening in the service to speak, he shares about his family and asks for prayers.  Sometimes he offers prayers for the endemic drug problems in the area.  Before and after services, he will let people know that he's a Catholic brother and shares what that is. 

"Most of what I do is educate out in the community," he says.  "I feel there is a strong need for that."  In an area where few Catholics live and myths and stereotypes abound, his simple presence can do much to break the ice.  "The important thing is you just have to be there." 

Br. Craig making conversation
at a church potluck.
I was able to visit a church with him on a visit this past fall.  It was a homecoming for a parish, a celebration that is often a time for fallen away members to be invited back.  Br. Craig brought a dish to share at the potluck and blended right in. 

"Most of these people have never met a Catholic, have never seen a Catholic and have never been to a Catholic church,: he says.  "Suddenly, here's Br. Craig and Frank from the Catholic Church—we were there.  We are real people; we seem like nice guys.  That's huge.  It is so important to be on their ground, especially if there is any chance of them coming to ours." 

He tries to break the mystique of Catholicism by asking folks to visit a Catholic Mass.  "I invite a lot of folks to come, but most don't.  However, I've been finding that I'm at a turning point.  In that first year, nobody would come when I would invite them.  They still didn't have that trust.  Now, a few more are at least stopping in to peek at our Mass and see what it's about."  Having more of the community visit Mass is one of his "greatest goals."
You lookin' for me?

The Lost Sheep

The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) is probably the most defining and often-cited passage in Glenmary's missionary charism. 

What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? (verse 4).

It takes a Gospel vision to see the wisdom in that.  What else would drive a Catholic society of priests, brothers and lay co-workers away from the multitudes in the cities to reach the scattered few and far between faithful in the far reaches of Appalachia and the South?  After all, Glenmary Catholic parishes are in areas where Catholics make up less than 3% of the population.

Br. Craig seems himself as turning the parable on its head.  "I leave the 1% Catholic and reach out to the 99% non-Catholic."  It could also be said that his ministry helps support that 1%.  Still, true to Glenmary form, Br. Crag has a special place in his heart for the smallest, poorest country churches out there. "I gotta be honest with you, those little places is really where my heart's at... the real lost and forgotten, the poorest of the poor, that's who Glenmary goes to."

A rural convenience store in eastern Tennessee,
which is also a place to grab a hot meal.

Evangelizing at Petticoat Junction

Br. Craig is a master community builder.  He makes these connections in friendly conversations with a cook at a local restaurant, with the cashier at a hardware store, and in causal conversations in the course of daily life.  He is involved in the community and very present.

Even as I have lunch with Br. Craig at a small country trading posting, he wastes no opportunity to evangelize with the woman who brought the food out to us.  He has met her a number of times before. 

They start talking:

"So are you from around here?" he asked.

"Oh, I'm from on up the road," she happily replied.

"I'm familiar with that area, kinda near Brenda's house?" he asks further.

"Yeah, I'm just a little bit before that."

"Sure is nice out here.  I'm in Maynardville," he continued.  "I'm part of a group, and we started the new Catholic Church... I don't know if you get to Food City, we're right across the highway." 

"Oh yeah, I've seen it there," she affirmed.

"If you've never been to a Catholic Church, you are welcome to come and see what it's like, if you want," asks Craig.  "I've got a lot of friends who are kinda curious," he continues says.  "We have a 9:00 service..."

"I'm a Baptist, I go out to Elk Springs Baptist Church."

"Oh, where is that exactly?" he inquires.  They talk at length about where that church is and what the identifying features are of the church building.  Eventually, he asks, "What time is your service?"

"Sunday morning.  We start at 10:00 for Sunday school and church at 11:00," she answered.

"I’ve been visiting a lot of churches around here, you care if I come by sometime?"

"Sure, come on down!"

"I'm not sure when I'll get to yours, but I'll try to make it maybe for an evening service."

The waitress is a little hesitant about his invitation to Catholic Mass, but it gets her thinking about other churches and religious experiences she has been curious about:  "I have never been in a Catholic Church," she offered.  "I’ve been to a Methodist before, and of course, Baptist.  I’ve been where they do the footwashes… primitive Baptist.  I’ve never been to one of the snake handler churches, which I’d like to go just to see how they carry out their service!”

It is about opening door and getting people to think about something they might not normally think about.  Perhaps there are barriers, conscious or otherwise, between groups of people.  A simple conversation over food can start a process of melting the ice just by bringing the matter up for discussion. Through relationships and friendly presence, Br. Craig is an ambassador of the Catholic Church in rural eastern Tennessee. 

After this lengthy exchange, he turns to me and apologizes, although he truly had nothing to be sorry about.  "I'm sorry, this is just what I do, this is what happens... I bring in a group here for lunch and we just start talking." 

It is worth pausing here to bring attention to something that could easily be overlooked in these words:  "We just start talking."

Indeed, how do you build community, reduce alienation, enhance understanding and begin the process of reconciliation?  You just start talking. 

Br. Craig may have a unique ministry.  By the numbers, it seems out of reach for most people, and because of that it might be easy to dismiss.  However, at its essence, his ministry can teach us all about how to be present to people and reach out to others in different ways.  Most of us will not visit dozens of different churches, but in the end, it is actually not about the numbers at all—it is about being present and the possibilities that are inherent when we make ourselves available.
All Christians—Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical—are baptized as missionaries of the faith, even though that is something not often talked about, especially in Catholic circles.  We can all be on the pioneering edge of our faith, making new connections and breaking new ground.  Whether we visit churches or start conversations with our coworkers and relatives, we can all recognize and live into our role to reach out others who are not in our group.  Br. Craig shows how we can do that with friendliness, goodwill and old fashioned politeness.

In worrying if others will follow, Br. Craig is encouraged by the words of his colleague, Fr. Bob Dalton:  "You're just a little different kind of leadership."

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