Move over Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. You’ve got competition, at least in one Bronx neighborhood.
During October and November, a group of parishioners at Our Lady of Refuge parish on East 196th Street has been going door to door in the apartment buildings and tenements in the Fordham-Bedford section of the Bronx inviting their neighbors to Sunday Mass.
It is a project that has been long in the works, explained Auxiliary Bishop John Jenik, the longtime pastor of Our Lady of Refuge. But he said the recent visit of Pope Francis provided the impetus to get this done now.
“We’ve been thinking about this for two years, and then it was kind of like a push when the pope came. Then everybody wanted to do it,” he told CNY on a recent crisp Saturday morning while the neighborhood missionaries prepared for the day’s outing to “bring the love of God” to their neighbors, as one of them said.
“I just floated (the idea) with them but I said, ‘You have to do it,’” Bishop Jenik said, “I said, You have to do it on your own—and they have. I suggested to them get shirts. Go out with the shirts with the name of the church and that’s exactly what they are doing. They put the whole thing together. They made up the cards that they drop off. They’ve had no misgivings about it at all. And they get a great greeting when there’s Catholics on the other side of the door. ”
The evangelizing team of 40 men and women has divided the neighborhood immediately surrounding the parish (they are careful not to tread into other Catholic parishes) up by streets. On this particular Saturday they were covering Briggs Avenue from 194th to 198th streets. Like the original 12 Apostles, they are sent out in teams of two, each dressed in the light blue T-shirt they designed themselves with a picture on the back depicting Jesus knocking on a typical New York apartment door, complete with peephole. All they bring with them is a small business-style card with Our Lady of Refuge’s address and the famous passage from John 3:16 on one side and the parish’s Mass schedule on the other side, and a parish bulletin. Other parishioners, those unable to climb the stairs in the larger apartment buildings, stay behind in the parish chapel and pray for the success of the mission.
Before they leave Our Lady of Refuge to make their rounds, the neighborhood missioners gather in a circle for prayer, asking for the Lord’s blessing and protection as they go about the work He has given them to do. After the prayer, they leave the church together but soon split into teams to cover different buildings and sides of the street. There are certain buildings that are off-limits, to be sure, too dangerous. Getting into some of the buildings can present obstacles. A reporter and photographer from Catholic New York traveled with one team.
At the first building the team visited, it was unable to gain access. So it went to the next building, 2821 Briggs Ave. There, after trying a few doorbells, the team was able to get inside. Somewhere in the building someone was making lunch. The fragrant aroma of chicken cooking permeated the air. The stairwells were dark, well traveled, and relatively neat. The group took the stairs and at each apartment knocked on the door. Some residents were either not home or refused to answer. At other apartments, residents spoke from behind closed doors, some asking the evangelists to slide their bulletins and cards under the door. At another apartment, a resident spoke through the door telling the evangelists she was a “Christian” and therefore not interested.
But some doors opened, if only for a few moments. At one apartment that looked promising because it had a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the door, a man partly opened the door but said in Spanish that he couldn’t open the door any further because he wasn’t dressed. Bare, at least from the waist up, the man thanked the evangelists and took a bulletin. At other doors, women with children answered, exchanged a few pleasantries and took the bulletins. Where people didn’t answer or weren’t home, the evangelists slipped the bulletins under the door or on the doorknob.
“If they don’t answer the door, we leave the fliers,” explained Josefina Edwards, a parishioner of 35 years. “And the next day they talk to me, and they say, ‘I came because you left the flier.’ For me, it’s a good experience. I’m happy to be part of this.”
When the team left that building, another team member told them that they’d talked to the super at the previous building and the group would be permitted in. The team went back and began the process again, door to door.
“Sometimes they don’t want to open the door because they think we are from the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” acknowledged parishioner Angelyn Nunez with a chuckle. “We have to say, ‘No, we’re from the Catholic Church,’ and when they hear that word they open the door.” If the person on the other side of the door is not interested or hostile, Ms. Nunez said, “We just say, OK, thank you, God bless you. That’s it.”
“We don’t argue,” added Jose Nunez, another team member, not related to Ms. Nunez. “As the Gospel says, shake the dust off your feet and keep going. It’s just an invitation. What we basically do is we invite people and show the love of God to them. We say listen, we have a parish in the neighborhood, we just want to invite you to come.”
Ms. Nunez said sometimes people are surprised to find there is a Catholic church so close. Our Lady of Refugee is a low-slung beige brick building that sits in the middle of the block. The neighboring school is actually more prominent on the neighborhood skyline. The church is easy to miss if you don’t know the building is there.
So has it worked?
“Yes!” exclaimed Bishop Jenik who thinks this model might work in other parishes too. “We are seeing people. We don’t know how many, but we are seeing new people come in.”
And he makes no apologies for his parish moving into what has traditionally been perceived as a Protestant domain. There are several Protestant churches in the Our Lady of Refuge neighborhood.
“Look at the Jehovah’s Witnesses and those other Pentecostal churches, we should be doing the same thing,” he said.
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