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God at the Parish Festival

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Parish festivals provide family fun and community connections. But they can also be a place to share God’s love. (CT photo/Greg Hartman)

Are you missing your biggest, best opportunity to share Christ’s love?

This story first appeared in our July, 2018 print edition

By Gail Finke

Festival season is in full swing in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, where church festivals raise much-needed funds and provide fun for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But as their lawns fill with crowds, are parishes missing a golden opportunity to reach out?

     “A parish festival is a one of the few events that has non-parishioners, non-Catholics, and non-engaged Catholics on the grounds interacting with parishioners,” said Sean Ater, director of New Evangelization for the archdiocese. “It’s their biggest opportunity to reach out.”

     Few parishes think of the advantages an established festival gives them for evangelization, agreed David Kissell, director of the Stewardship Office. “Parishes are focused on raising money,” he said. “But every festival has thousands of volunteer hours just for the weekend — not counting all the planning in advance. If every parish just put 10 percent of that energy toward evangelization and reaching out, our parishes would really be cooking!”

     Evangelization doesn’t have to mean sharing the Good News of Christ (although it can). A parish evangelization effort can focus on big goals, such as sending out trained “street evangelization teams” to talk to people about the Catholic faith, or having volunteers roam the event invite people to special programs or activities. But it can also mean smaller projects such as staffing a welcome booth to give each person arriving a smile and a greeting, or giving everyone who comes a card or flyer inviting them to return.

     “Your event needs to tie back to why we exist, which is to bring people into a closer relationships with Christ and His church,” said Kissell. “How welcoming are we being? It’s a different way of thinking about what we do.”

     One of the largest parishes in the archdiocese, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Anderson Township, takes the big approach. “We have a rockstar RCIA team here,” said Nicolette Chmiel, parish coordinator of evangelization. “They are dedicated to their faith, and have a lot of enthusiasm.” At last summer’s festival, they formed the core of a team of parishioners, including Chmiel, trained in how to talk to people about faith in an engaging way. This “street evangelization” at IHM included giving away rosaries, handing out cards with Mass times, and even walking the grounds with a life-sized cutout of Pope Francis, offering to take photos of people standing next to it.

     “That really broke the ice,” she said. “The pope was really popular.”

     Everyone involved in the team for the day met in the church before the festival for adoration, to pray for the people they would meet. “It’s rooted in prayer,” Chmiel said, “and one of the things we would ask people was if we could pray for them.”

     St. Gertrude Parish in Madeira has done similar efforts in the past, even putting up an apologetics-themed “Truth Booth” with information about what the Catholic church teaches. This year the parish decided to change the Truth Booth to a welcome booth and focus on hospitality. 

     “The youth ministry hosts the Truth Booth, and we wanted to share the joy of our youth community with our parishioners and other attendees,” said Megan Dickert, who directs St. Gertrude’s high school evangelization. “We’ve been looking at how the festival speaks to our community about what the parish is about. I grew up going to parish festivals, so I know parishes by what food they serve. But I can’t really tell you want those parishes are about.” 

      Teams of two to three youth members (“and that means a flock of their friends”) manned the booth in shifts with one adult. They welcomed people to the parish, gave them maps, invited children to play free games, and gave everyone a business card with the parish’s website and email address, Mass and confession times, and address.

     “We want to get people plugged into the life of the parish, and those sacraments are the life of the parish,” Dickert said. “This year we wanted to put all our focus on building relationships.”

     Many parishes have solid relationships with their communities – in Celina, for example, the annual Immaculate Conception festival is community-wide, and stops for evening Mass. But in other areas, where parishes are surrounded by many other churches and institutions, the annual festival, fish fry, dinner, or other fundraising event is a yearly reminder to the wider community that they exist. 

     At St. Leo the Great’s Culture Fest in North Fairmount, many of the parishioners are refugees from Guatemala. “They organize the festival and they see it as a way of saying thank you and sharing their blessings,” said Casey Betz, the parish’s development director. “Those of us in the office see it also as outreach to the neighborhood and beyond.”

     People from other parishes who volunteer at the St. Leo foodbank or who help refugee families attend the festival for the chance to celebrate together. And every year, Betz said, some people who come for the music or food join the parish. “Most of the staff attend and act as ambassadors, greeting everyone, especially new faces, engaging in conversations about who we are and what we do. And they make it a point to invite folks to attend Mass.”

     Festivals are also a way for parishes near growing Spanish-speaking communities to reach out to them. Many recent immigrants are Catholic but don’t attend church, either because they don’t know where Spanish Masses are offered, or they are uncertain of being welcome. “Our Latinos do not use email very much and do not like to fill out forms,” said Christina McGrath, pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Church in New Carlisle, which offers a Saturday Spanish Mass and many Hispanic programs and ministries. “At our festival we have lots of printed material to give out with information about sacraments and activities, we have a table for registration for catechism, and we walk around to register people for the parish and to give information on baptisms, etc. 

     “We find people do not like to fill out the forms, but if you have a form on a clipboard, then you can ask questions and they answer,” she said. “We keep it VERY simple–names, address, phone – and follow up later when we can.”

     Ater and Kissel said that while many parishes miss even the small opportunities they could take to make their festivals a first contact with the parish, rather than an entertaining destination, all they need is a change of mindset.

    “The event is already there to take advantage of,“ Ater said. “Parishes rely on these festivals to make money, but they’re also their greatest opportunity to make contact.”

     “Every opportunity to show you’re part of the community is great,” said Kissell, who has worked a welcome booth at St. John the Baptist, Dry Ridge. Free coloring pages for children and maps of the booths, cheerful greeters, and other giveaways at the booth gave people a friendly introduction to the parish and its people, and by extension, to the whole Catholic Church.

     “My advice would be: Do it!” said Chmiel at IHM. “Don’t be afraid to bring God into the festival.”

What is evangelization?

A term favored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “evangelization” doesn’t mean tent revival-style proselytizing. Staff from the Cincinnati office of NET Ministries, a national organization that evangelizes youth through retreats and other discipleship events, explained what it does mean.

     “It means preaching the Gospel through witness,” said NET’s area scheduler, Abbie Kohler. While that can be done through formal teaching and prayer, she said, “that can also be through the way we act and live. It means sharing the love of the Lord without pressure for people to convert.” 

     Team Administrator Joe Lundin explained that evangelization is born of prayer and a deep knowledge of Christ’s love. “It comes from feeling that my cup overflows with how much the Lord has blessed me, and so I need to share it,” he said. 

     At a festival, evangelization can be as formal as sharing rosaries and holy cards and speaking about the Catholic faith, or as informal as organizing volunteers to ensure that each person who arrives is made to feel welcome to the parish community in a little “encounter with Christ.” 

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