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September 27, 2009

Spreading the faith Evangelization workshop aims to increase church membership

By Patrick Butler


Spreading the faith is everybody’s business, a former Pentecostal minister-turned- Catholic deacon told a Sept. 19 evangelization workshop attended by more than 200 black Catholics at St. Rita of Cascia High School, 7740 S. Western Ave.

“But don’t think you can try to serve God and not have some serious opposition from Satan,” warned Deacon Alex Jones, “Prepare for war.”

He ought to know.

The 67-year-old Jones, once arguably the most prominent black minister in Detroit, walked away from “everything” nine years ago when he became a Catholic, bringing his wife, 14 family members, and 34 members of his congregation along with him.

“I had no more church, no more ministry. My reputation was gone to hell. Most of my friends turned away. Even my wife at first said she’d never become Catholic,” said Jones, who at first wondered why he gave up everything he built over 45 years even though “I loved being a Pentecostal. I wasn’t searching for the truth. I thought I already had it.”

Jones said he never thought of himself as a “convert” since “I was already part of the church, but was imperfectly united to it.” And while “I was leaving a church where everyone loved me to go into one where nobody knows me. The Holy Spirit sometimes makes us go where we don’t want to go.”

Jones is part of a steady flow of black conversions to Catholicism, said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, who noted Jones isn’t the first pastor to lead at least part of his congregation into the church. Bishop Perry’s office and the Office for Black Catholics sponsored the event.

Evangelization — reaching out to one’s neighbors — is especially important now that Cardinal George has challenged archdiocesan officials to increase church membership by 10 percent over the next two years, Bishop Perry said. “The pastors have embraced this, but they need your help,” he told the audience of deacons, parish evangelization committee members, youth ministers, religious education directors and catechists.

Studies show that “43 percent of the unchurched and the fallen away would return to the church if someone would invite them. The interest on their part is so much stronger if they can see a sense of enthusiasm about the Catholic faith, and our welcoming them,” Bishop Perry said.

Evangelization can even be good for the community at large, he said.

“The churches we are worshipping in were for the most part built for neighborhoods of Catholics who used to walk to church. That population is no longer around. What is left for us are parish structures larger than we would have built,” the bishop said.

“But if those churches are to remain viable, we must reclaim our neighborhoods. We must get to know those who live around us and invite them into the richness of our Catholic faith,” said Perry.

“Nobody is here today by accident or coincidence. The Holy Spirit brought each and every one of us here this morning to hear something that’s important to them,” said Father Michael Knotek, pastor of St. John de la Salle Parish.

“God allowed each of us to wake up this morning and hear a message meant for them,” agreed Mary Norfleet- Johnson, director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics.

But in an era when “all the religions are suffering (membership loss) because of secularism and insistence on individual freedom, it’s important to remember the late Pope John Paul II’s warning that ‘evangelization can’t be new in its content, but it must be new in its ardor and methods,’” Jones said.

The first thing to do is stop thinking about the “good old days” of American Catholicism, he said.

“The best days of the church are still ahead of us,” he said.