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Catholic group tries to spread the Gospel one tourist at a time

“First, you gotta get a sign,” Catholic street evangelist Ed Graveline says. In this case, a sandwich board that proclaims: “Catholic Truth.”

Graveline heads up the Las Vegas team of St. Paul Street Evangelization, an international Catholic lay movement started by Steve Dawson, a young business student and Catholic convert in Portland, Ore., and now based in Detroit.

Dawson started the ministry in May 2012 by passing out blessed Miraculous Medals on the street in Portland. He got the idea, he says, after “I heard that St. Maximilian Kolbe used to evangelize those he had never met before by offering a person a blessed Miraculous Medal.” Kolbe was a Catholic priest who was executed in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in 1941.

Dawson says Kolbe’s story “inspired me to purchase one thousand Miraculous Medals in bulk.” He adds, “I realized that God could use us to change hearts through short and simple conversations.”

Now the movement has 100 teams throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Adam Janke, program director for St. Paul Street Evangelization, says Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Mich., and Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit serve as the lay ministry’s episcopal advisers.

Dawson points to Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, “Joy of the Gospel.” Dawson quotes Francis as writing, “How beautiful it is to see that young people are ‘street preachers’ joyfully bringing Jesus to every street.”

“That’s quite the endorsement!” Dawsons says.

Ed Graveline, a 58-year-old salesman, brought together the Las Vegas team of St. Paul Street Evangelization in January 2013 after he discovered the ministry on Facebook. He contacted some friends to meet at a picnic table in Sunset Park, and Graveline says they spoke with about 10 to 15 people on their first outing.

After a month in the park, Graveline says they moved to the sidewalk in front of Encore on the Strip, next door to Guardian Angel Cathedral. Encore security asked them to move off the sidewalk and into an out-of-the-way corner of the property.

Graveline consulted attorney Telia Williams, a Baptist who converted to Catholicism after attending a Bible study Graveline taught at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church. Williams directed Graveline to the ACLU of Nevada, which provided him with a sheaf of free speech cases.

The team decided to move to the broader sidewalk in front of The Mirage volcano. Graveline says that even though The Mirage owns the sidewalk, as long as the team does not obstruct pedestrian traffic or sell anything, it has a free speech right to share the Gospel there. Mirage security, after checking them out, gave its blessing.

How do you start a conversation about Catholicism with a stranger on the street? Graveline asks, “Would you like a free rosary?”

Graveline says that in one year the team has given away some 6,000 rosaries donated by church rosary-maker groups. Graveline’s wife, Cindy, who runs an online business, has made more than 500 rosaries for the team.

“Mike,” a team member who prefers not to use his real name, is a 58-year-old handyman who returned to his Catholic roots after a sojourn as a Baptist. “By displaying a Catholic item, like a rosary, right away they know you are Catholic,” he says.

Charisee “Reese” Gutierrez, a 30-year-old who worked in computer outsourcing in the Philippines before moving to the United States, says: “The rosaries are very colorful, and kids are attracted to them. They say, ‘Mom, I want it!’ and then the moms will stop and I will talk with them.”

“We only have two seconds, what do you want people to know?” Graveline says. “God loves you.”

Mike adds, “Preaching that you’re going to hell — you don’t know that!”

“Catholics are known for what we’re against, but not what we’re for,” Gutierrez says. “We’re about the love of Christ.”

On a recent Saturday, the team set up its sandwich-board sign and a small table in the crisp afternoon sun beneath the huge Mirage marquee advertising the Cirque du Soliel show, “Love.”

Graveline stands on the sidewalk holding out his rosaries. A couple passes by, “No, thanks,” they say, then add, “God bless you.”

A man with a young boy asks Graveline, “Why are you Catholic?” Graveline gives him a thumbnail history of the early Church and suggests he check out catholic.com. When Graveline shares a similar outline sketch with a group of young people from Ely, one of them exclaims, “We didn’t know that.”

A young man walks briskly past, “No thanks, I’m Muslim.” Graveline explains about the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal and suggests that Mary plays a significant ecumenical role between Catholics and Muslims.

Gutierrez stands passively with rosaries outstretched. A young man tells Reese he is a Baptist. Reese teaches him how to say the rosary, and he makes an awkward sign of the cross while his girlfriend talks on her cellphone.

A heckler yells out from a car speeding past on the Strip.

A family stops to talk with Graveline and Mike. The father is excited by their street evangelism, and he wants to know how he can start a team in Fontana, Calif.

Graveline prays with a man who is supporting himself on a wheelchair. Graveline refers him to Catholic Charities.

A Hispanic man with a tattooed neck comes up and accepts a rosary at the table followed by a group of stylishly dressed young women, “Are those rosaries for free? I want one!”

Mike holds a Divine Mercy icon while behind him a mobile billboard with a giant nearly nude woman demands, “Call Hot Babes Now!”

A young Chinese man asks Mike what the icon means: “It is all new to me. I’m taking it all in to take home with me. I don’t understand what this is.” He takes a selfie of himself and Mike on his cellphone.

“Everyone is called to evangelize,” Graveline says, adding “There are a lot of prodigal sons out there.”

A young man pulls out his ear buds and Graveline asks him, “Want to go to heaven?” He responds, “Absolutely!”

The St. Paul Street Evangelism team gathers in front of The Mirage volcano every Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. More information is available from Graveline at 702-271-1142 or by visiting www.StreetEvangelization.com.

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