Parishioners at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, S.E., participated in a neighborhood evangelization effort on Sept. 11, going door to door inviting their neighbors to learn more about the Catholic faith. Above, Deacon Ralph Cyrus (left) and parishioner Janic Beck (right) talk with Barbara Watanabe, a resident of the area surrounding the church.
Parishioners at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, S.E., participated in a neighborhood evangelization effort on Sept. 11, going door to door inviting their neighbors to learn more about the Catholic faith. Above, Deacon Ralph Cyrus (left) and parishioner Janic Beck (right) talk with Barbara Watanabe, a resident of the area surrounding the church.
At not quite half past one in the afternoon on Saturday, Sept. 11, Capitol Hill resident Peter Manseau opened his front door in response to a polite knock.

Standing on his stoop were three parishioners from Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish just down the road. This surprised him.

"I was not expecting Catholics when I saw folks at the door," Manseau said later. "I was raised Catholic myself, and I know going door to door isn't the usual thing."

The parishioners who greeted him - Janis Belk, Deacon Ralph Cyrus and 12-year-old Jordan Shepard -- were walking a block of A Street, S.E., on the first of eight Saturdays that about 40 church members will be knocking on neighborhood doors. They aren't asking for money or trying to enroll people in RCIA from their doorways.

Their simple mission has been nicknamed "Friendship Evangelization" by Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian's pastor, Msgr. Charles Pope.

"We're going out to meet the neighbors," he said. "We want to reconnect to our community here."

The long-term hope is to bring back lapsed Catholics and invite newcomers into the church, but as Msgr. Pope said, "You can't evangelize people you don't even know."

"It's about developing a friendship, which is the basis of evangelization."

That's a simple concept, but also a challenging one to Catholics for whom evangelizing does not always come easily. Msgr. Pope said that while the "Friendship Evangelization" idea has been stewing for close to two years, its launch on Sept. 11 ended up being perfectly timed with the publication of Archbishop Donald Wuerl's pastoral Letter on the New Evangelization, Disciples of the Lord: Sharing the Vision.

"I'm just happy to see the entire archdiocese is going to center on 'Job #1', as I call it -- the Lord's commission to go out and make of disciples of all nations and baptize them," the pastor said.

The beginning of the parish's evangelization effort originated with Msgr. Pope's return to Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in 2007 as pastor. He had previously been associate pastor there between 1993 and 1999 and estimates that parishioner numbers dropped from 800 in 1999 to the current 500 members.

Msgr. Pope attributes this to the changing Lincoln Park/Capitol Hill neighborhood. Over the last 20 years, many of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian's predominantly African American parishioners have moved out to Prince George County. As a commuter parish, the church numbers have gone done.

"I figured if we kept letting things drain away, if we weren't seriously about evangelizing ... we'd lose the critical mass needed to keep a parish," he said.

About 18 months ago, the groundwork began for the door-to-door evangelization initiative. There were homilies with targeted evangelization themes, directed Bible studies and a Pentecost Sunday sign-up for volunteers. Parishioners from St. John Neumann, Gaithersburg, and Sacred Heart, Bowie, members of the Neocatechumenal Way, and the nearby convent's Sisters of the Institute of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara talked to the volunteers about their own door-to-door experiences. Parishioners were also encouraged to invite non-practicing Catholic family members to church events.

On Sept. 11 at about 12:30 p.m., the volunteer walkers, including six SSVM sisters, sat in the back pews of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian and divided up into teams of two to four people. In the front of the church were 19 volunteers who couldn't walk long-distances or were uncomfortable going door-to-door. They would pray for the walkers during the hour they were out canvassing the streets.

Each "Friendship Evangelization" team got nametags and about 15 clear, handled bags containing information about Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian and upcoming parish events, including a gospel choir concert, blessing of the animals and holiday concert. Each team had a clipboard with street addresses they were to cover and space for contact information of those to whom they talked.

Several returning Catholics and newer converts to Catholicism were among the volunteers, including Pamela Pope.

"I thought being a new member, I'd be a good contributor," said the Catholic of two years. "I wanted to be able to share my enthusiasm for the Church."

"So many people probably pass the church and don't know what it represents, that this is an active and vibrant part of the community."

Pamela Pope recently worked for the 2010 census, so she was feeling pretty comfortable with the idea of knocking on doors. However, she added flexibility was key. "You never know what to expect."
Looking over their team bag and clipboard of names with her was lifelong parishioner Theresa Fields. "God asks us to go out and evangelize and spread his word to others and to bring others to his house," Fields said. "I'm trying fulfill my obligation to him."

"We're here to spread the joy," Pamela Pope added.

A little before 1 p.m., Msgr. Pope once again reviewed what message the group was to try and convey at each house and how to keep track of names and prayer requests.

"The way to end it is to say to the person, 'We're going to pray for everyone we meet today. Is there anyone you want us to pray for?'" the pastor said.

"Whatever we're doing today, we've been successful because we're bringing in the Lord's harvest," he said. "Sometimes to plant seeds, you have to break ground. You may plant a seed today that may sprout 30 years from now. You never know."

Msgr. Pope led the group in prayer before they dispersed, adding, "We're going to make mistakes today but we're going to learn as we go."

Once outside, Deacon Cyrus, Belk, Shepard and his father Marcellus made their way over to A Street. There were 17 houses on the block to cover.

At the first door, Barbara Watanabe answered.

"I think you're good neighbors," she told the group. When asked about any prayer or civic concerns she had, Watanabe wanted to know what was going to be done with a neighborhood building that had partially collapsed after a recent renovation.

Before leaving, Belk said, "Come visit us sometime. " Marcellus Shepard jumped in to mention the Oct. 24 church Gospel choir concert.

The group continued down the street, talking to six people that came to their doors, including Manseau, the man who was surprised Catholics were at his door, and a fellow parishioner, Beryl Chandler.

Signs of Mayor Fenty campaigners were seen on doorknob hangers at several houses, and someone perhaps tired of knockers could be seen peeking down the stairs to see if the church group had gone. Maybe it was the parishioners' friendly, non-forceful approach or because seventh grader Shepard was with them, but the most "grief" the group got from those they talked to was a man smoking on his front porch. Though he did not want an information packet, he was still polite.

"Small dogs have big voices, right?" Deacon Cyrus jokingly asked at one house where the sound of fierce woofing was heard inside, though no one answered. At another, a young woman answered the door talking on the phone. "I thought she was going to do the, 'I'm on the phone,' trick," Deacon Cyrus said, but she ended up telling whomever was one the line she'd call the people back, took the information packet handed to her and was smiling by the time the group left.

A few houses away, a man answered his door and told Team 1 that he and his wife moved to the neighborhood last Halloween.

"Welcome to the neighborhood," Deacon Cyrus said. The man did know a little about the old St. Cyprian Church, having seen a historic sign marking the spot of the now torn down original building. Belk asked if he was Catholic.

"No, I'm not a religious person," he said.

"Come down anyway, and we'll welcome you," Belk responded. "No pressure."

After the group completed the houses on their assigned side of A Street, Belk said, "In different words, I've heard several times, I'm glad for the church's presence."

She herself returned to the Catholic Church a few months ago and was surprised at the mostly positive reaction that they received.

Around 2 p.m. the walkers and prayers gathered in the Center City Public Charter School (former Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian School) cafeteria, for a light lunch prepared by parishioners.

While they were eating, Msgr. Pope debriefed them on the afternoon and heard from the various teams how things went. "A lot of people you found out don't even know we're here," the pastor said. One Catholic talked to had been going to a parish further away and didn't know Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian was nearby.

Felicia Miller's group had walked around with one of the sisters who wore her blue and gray full habit. When people answered their doors, Miller said she saw "this surprised look on their faces that Catholics were knocking on doors."

There were some negative reactions to the parishioners including one woman who had quickly closed the door on Msgr. Pope's group and a Catholic who didn't feel the need to be evangelized to.

Many walkers had turned lukewarm or negative reactions into positive experiences. Jackie Johnson's group had met a Quaker woman who expressed frustration she couldn't receive Communion in the Catholic Church. But, at the end of their conversation after the parishioners invited her to come pray at the church, Johnson said, "She softened and embraced us."

Theresa Fields shared that at one house her team met a man about to take his disabled wife to physical therapy. The group ended up being invited inside to pray and offered to find someone to stay with the wife anytime the husband wanted to go to church.

Over the next eight weeks, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian parishioners will spread out further across the neighborhood. Bruce Miner, who had walked Walter Street that Saturday said, "I hope we'll be able to let people know we're here, to let them know we exist. I hope from that they'll feel comfortable coming to visit us."

For Jackie Johnson, the parish's evangelization efforts are particularly important in light of Archbishop Wuerl's recent call to promote the New Evangelization. "Especially with the number of Catholics declining, we need to reach out to the community and let people know it's a charitable church," she said.

Msgr. Pope emphasized again to the group that "Friendship Evangelization" would be a gradual process of welcoming neighbors to Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian.

"Now when they drive by the building, they'll say, 'Oh I met somebody from there.' Or if we left the bag, they'll have that reminder," he said. "We're putting the human face on 14th and East Capitol Street."