Proclaiming the Gospel in Your Own Backyard
Just a few days before Christmas, I found myself in a dentist’s reception area waiting for several children to have their teeth cleaned. To occupy myself, I made notes about what I still needed to purchase for Christmas dinner, for Aunt Eleanor, and for the six stockings I still hadn’t stuffed with small goods. I was deep in thought when I heard a woman sit down directly across from me. She was supposed to be filling out paperwork but every few moments she would gasp in pain, grab the side of her mouth, close her eyes and hold her breath as she waited for the wave of ache to leave.
My stomach lurched and my eyes stung with tears. I could practically feel this woman’s infliction. My tongue found its way to the fleshy, gaping hole at the back of my mouth, empty dental real estate from a root canal gone very wrong just a few summers ago. I have endured the kind of tooth pain agony I witnessed in the woman seated across from me and I had a visceral, physiological reaction every time I heard her. I wanted to help relieve her pain, to make it go away, to pat her hand and tell her I knew just how she felt, but she was a stranger and I didn’t want to be weird.
Instead, my daughter and I sat and watched the woman feebly try to fill out the paper work in between extreme bouts of agony. I stared at the stranger, feeling nauseated every time she would yelp. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Finally, when she could stand it no longer, the stranger rose, crossed in front of us and said in broken English to the receptionist, “I can’t fill this out.”
The office manager rose from her desk and as she approached the hopeful patient, she shook her head no the entire way, and told her with a hint of exasperation, “You have to fill this out if you want to see the doctor. We need to have your medical history.”
The woman grabbed the side of her face again, sucked in another sharp breath, closed her eyes, and waved her head back and forth. A tear fell down her cheek.
Again, the office manager repeated, “We can’t help you if you don’t fill this out.”
The woman stepped away from the office manager, still clutching the side of her face and bent at the waist, doubled over in pain. There was no way the woman could write her name, let alone complete several pages of documents.
I hopped out of my chair and moved towards the two of them. I looked the office manager in the eye and said, “I’ll fill it out her paperwork for her. She’s in so much pain, she can’t do it alone. She needs help.”
Then, rather boldly, I took the clip board from the office manager’s hands. She stared back at me wide eyed but released the papers into my hands. When I had the clip board, I looked at the manager and said, “Do you remember me from a few summers ago? You helped me get an appointment because I had an infected tooth that had to be pulled. You were so kind. You personally called the doctor for me yourself so that I could have my tooth fixed. I would never have been seen if you hadn’t called, but you had mercy. This woman needs a doctor. She needs help. Let me help her like you helped me.”
I turned to the woman in pain and began asking her questions about her medical history. It was a challenging process because she didn’t speak English, so I found myself gesticulating to try to communicate the questions in order to ascertain her answers. After a few minutes of extreme pantomime, I determined she had had breast cancer, chemotherapy treatment, and was allergic to sulfur drugs. I checked the appropriate boxes and handed the clip board back to the manger, who stood watching us the entire time.
“Thank you for allowing me to help,” I said and went back to my seat, triumphant. The office manager turned back to her desk and began coding the woman’s paperwork into her system.
A few minutes later, the hygienist called the stranger back, and hopefully provided some sweet relief to that suffering soul.
I’m a cradle Catholic and for most of my life, I don’t mind admitting that whenever I read the risen Jesus’s words as he appears to his eleven apostles in the gospel of Mark to “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the gospel to all creation” I would get a little overwhelmed. I’m only one person and I live in a small corner of the universe.
How am I supposed to go out and proclaim the gospel to all of creation? How am I supposed to find time to heal the sick? Speak new languages? And drive out demons all in the name of Jesus?
I find the 45 minutes I wait to see a priest for confession often brings out the worst in me! And I’m invited by Jesus to proclaim the good news to all the ends of the Earth?
Does Jesus know with whom He’s working?
Yes, yes, he does.
Here’s the thing I’ve realized about evangelization: Jesus is not asking me to spread the good news somewhere I’m not. He doesn’t want me to go find another life or focus on the natural gifts and talents of my neighbor (which, by the way, she has in spades). I don’t need to hop on a plane to India or Japan and preach the good news like St Francis of Xavier. But I can allow the love of Christ and my zeal for all souls to color my encounters with everyone I meet.
Spreading the good news to the ends of the earth, I’ve discovered, is a matter of heart, not a matter of location (which is a good thing because jet setting the gospel to India probably isn’t going to happen for me anytime soon.)
However, I can spread the gospel right in my own backyard. In fact, I’m called to this type of work especially in my own backyard.
So, what does this look like for me? It means I do the best I can to love the people I meet everyday:
- It means I tell my husband he has what it takes to lead his pack of employees towards business success.
- It means I help my fourth grade struggling with his spelling words.
- It means I make a welcome gift basket for my new neighbor.
- It means I refuse to participate in slanderous conversations about others.
- It means I allow others to help me, even when my pride is screaming to “let me do it myself!”
- It means I encourage the young mom, struggling under the mountain of laundry and constant requests to fill sippy cups, by telling her she is doing a good job.
- It means I pray, write, preach with my actions, and do penance.
- It means I help the lady with extreme tooth pain fill out her paperwork so she can see the dentist.
The thing is, that day in the dentist’s office, I never once said the name of Jesus to anyone. But I know I preached something about him all the same.
And you can too.
Now go, get to it. You’ve got a world (right in your own backyard) to evangelize.
Colleen Duggan is an author, Catholic wife, mom of six, and speaker. She writes about Catholic family life here and her articles have also appeared on Catholic Exchange, CatholicMom.com, and Aleteia. Her new book Good Enough is Good Enough can be found on Amazon and wherever books are sold.