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New Catholic outpost brings faith into the modern marketplace
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
August 16, 2002


Catholics, particularly the Minnesota variety, are known for strong communities and enduring family connections. They are not especially known for reaching out and promoting their faith among the general public. But five Catholic parishes in central Minnesota say modern-day culture demands a change.

The cart sits in the mall
The five parishes' "evangelization cart" at the Crossroads Center mall in St. Cloud.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

As the story goes, God made the world in six days. On the seventh, he rested.

For many people nowadays, the interpretation has shifted a bit. Sundays are still good for resting. But they're also made - for shopping.

Get philosophical at your local mall some afternoon and you might wonder if shopping is indeed the new religion. There's a certain worship of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. Many of us can recite advertising mantras like Bible verses. And before leaving, we may undertake the ritual consumption of a corn dog and an Orange Julius.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone took one of Minnesota's dominant religions to the heart of consumer culture. Starting this month in St. Cloud's Crossroads Center, between Eddie Bauer, Foot Locker and the mobile hairpiece vendor, sits what Jim Neppl calls "the evangelization cart."

The Rev. Ron Wyrens
The Rev. Ron Wyrens (behind glass) stands ready to distribute dozens of pamphlets to interested passers-by.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

"One way of looking at this is a real pioneering, exploratory effort at taking faith into the marketplace," Neppl says. "But on the other hand, this was done a couple thousand years ago. Jesus himself, and especially Paul and his disciples - that's how they did it."

Neppl helped organize five parishes in the St. Cloud area to rent and staff the cart. It's a standard vendor's push-wagon, but it's covered with leaflets instead of Beanie Babies, and has a large Bible mounted on one end. The mall offers a reduced rate to the parishes of $500 per month.

They plan a passive approach to sharing their faith. Volunteer parishioners stand by on afternoons and weekends to greet shoppers and, with luck, answer questions.

Neppl emphasizes that "we're not here to proselytize anyone, we're not here to recruit people. It's more, as we understand evangelization in the Catholic tradition, an invitation and a welcome. So common courtesy prevails."

Dan Finn
Prof. Dan Finn, St. John's University.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Pope John Paul II has recently encouraged Catholics to embrace the modern world and reach out in new ways. Theology professor Dan Finn of St. John's University says the evangelization cart is consistent with that.

"There's always been a very communal aspect to the Catholic community," Finn says. "But it hasn't been as visible in the civic or commercial sphere as this would be. And so while you might expect to see evangelical Protestants out in public, making statements, one doesn't think of Catholics that way, and I think that's the big shift here."

Rev. Ron Wyrens, the pastor of St. Joseph's parish in Waite Park, agrees.

"It is a shift. We've always kind of been waiting for people to come to our doors. Now we're kind of going into territories we haven't been before," Wyrens says as he staffs the cart on a recent afternoon.

"We've kind of stayed in our buildings and some safe environments. This isn't perceived as safe. Here, I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know when someone is going to come up and have a challenging question. That's something new for us," says Wyrens.

Jim Neppl and Rev. Ron Wyrens
Jim Neppl (left) and Rev. Ron Wyrens.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

There are no challenging questions on this afternoon, but the cart has only been out a few days. Some interested local Catholics have stopped by, but organizers expect it might take a number of trips to the mall before the curious non-Catholic shopper or the confrontational atheist decides to approach the cart.

Wyrens says, for now, just being there sends an important message in light of recent scandals in the Catholic Church.

"Maybe our presence here says that we're not hiding," he says. "We're not running behind rocks because of some turmoil that's occurred. We're still willing to stand out and say this is who we are and we strongly believe in our tradition, our response to life."

The evangelization cart is on a 90-day lease. The parishes will try it out in different spots around the mall and when the time is up, they'll assess whether faith has a role in this modern-day marketplace.