As night fell on Saturday March 5, dozens of young adults from across the Archdiocese of Washington bearing candles fanned out from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle along nearby downtown sidewalks, to invite people to come inside the cathedral and pray, as part of the third annual Light the City evangelization effort.
“I think if we find just one lost sheep, it’d be a great night, but I have a feeling we’ll find a bunch more,” said Father Bill Byrne, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac who was recently among more than 700 priests from around the world who were commissioned by Pope Francis to serve as Missionaries of Mercy during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The story of the lost sheep speaks to the heart of the mission of Light the City, Father Byrne said. “It seeks to let people know that Jesus Christ truly does love them and wishes to heal them and make them whole so they can go and do good.”
The young adults first gathered inside the cathedral, beneath its mosaics depicting St. Matthew and the three other evangelists credited with writing the Gospels. Before sending the young adults out in pairs, Father Byrne blessed them praying, “May we be missionaries of light. May we be missionaries of mercy … may we understand that mercy is the bridge that joins you [Christ] to us eternally, letting us know that we are loved in spite of our sinfulness, and that you always call us home.”
Those young adult missionaries had one goal – to take their faith outside the church’s walls by simply inviting people into the cathedral to light a candle and take a moment to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.
“Maybe we’ll encounter someone tonight who hasn’t been to church in a while or maybe has never been to a church,” said Joshua Maxey, who has taken part in previous Light the City events. “Maybe all they need is that invitation.”
Unlike Joshua, this was the first time many of the young adults would be going out to evangelize. It’s an experience that many agreed was outside their comfort zones. However, Joshua’s partner for the evening and first-time Light the City missionary, Elizabeth Balboa, shared a piece of advice saying, “You just need a radical trust and hope that the Lord will use you as a vehicle regardless of your inadequacy.”
Even before the pairs had fully dispersed, one man standing at the corner of the cathedral’s steps spoke up saying he would gladly take a candle because he could use a blessing. Alonzo Forrest, or Lo as he says many call him, may be without a permanent home, but he said he has found refuge praying at St. Matthew’s for 20 years. Forrest said he took the opportunity to pray for his family. “My greatest blessing hasn’t come yet. It will come when I go upstairs to the Father,” he said. “My blessing here on earth, it’ll be coming in six more months. I’m 50 years old, and my first child, that’ll be my greatest blessing.”
One young adult shared how street evangelizing has helped her feel more unified with those who, like Forrest, are homeless. “I never had anyone react negatively, but it’s tough to be ignored,” said Carolyn Wait. “It definitely gave me a great feeling of solidarity with the homeless and thinking about how many times they would be ignored on the street.”
Unlike Forrest, not everyone who was approached was quite so open to the invitation. Being ignored seemed to be the most common reaction. Whether it was someone glued to a phone or a group of friends who didn’t want to lose a spot in line outside a club, even getting someone’s attention in this bustling city seemed to be a challenge. Then there would be that one person, or a couple that would pause to ask a question, opening the door to a simple invitation.
“I think what is nice is we offered them the candle and maybe she is Jewish because she said she might put the candle in the synagogue,” one of the Light the City participants said.
The candlelight drew people into the cathedral who are familiar with the building but not so familiar with the Church. “We actually passed right by and then came back in,” said Scott Weiss, who is also Jewish. He lives in the area with his wife Sharon and has visited the cathedral before. Sharon said there was simply something that called to them. “There’s a lot going on in today’s world that we think of as being dark, so it’s always nice to come to a place where you can feel the presence of goodness and light … Growing up as a Christian, I come in here and all of that comes back to me.”
Sharon was not alone in finding familiarity and a sense of the faith she knew as a child. “I feel like I’m getting home,” said Aramis Sandoval, a 24-year-old who was baptized Catholic, but when given the choice as a pre-teen decided not to continue in the faith. Sandoval says saying yes to the prayer invitation just felt natural. “I feel as though this is something I’m supposed to be doing to get where I’m supposed to be.”
Over the next couple hours, the glow of candlelight inside the cathedral seemed to grow a little brighter, as people prayed and lined up for Confession.
Then as if on cue, a young man wandered slowly and unsurely up the candlelit aisle, almost like a lost sheep who had found his way. Just a few paces in, his attention was drawn upward to the beautiful mosaics. In awe he began to take it all in, slowly turning in circles to view each piece of artwork as he continued his walk toward the altar. Kneeling down at the Communion rail, he lit the candle he’d been given on the street, and bowed his head in prayer.
(An earlier version of this story posted on the Catholic Standard's website mistakenly put Mark Zimmermann's name as the author. The story was written by Kit Cross. The Catholic Standard regrets the error.)