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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Touching Reflections of a First-time Missionary Family
Elizabeth Hawbaker Reflects on Her Holy Week as a Missionary

The Hawbaker Family takes to the streets.
The Hawbaker Family takes to the streets.

By: Elizabeth Hawbaker

It sounded like a good idea from the beginning: exciting, new, a little out of my comfort zone, but something worth finding out about: missions as a family. Stan, my husband, said yes with no hesitation. So we entered the mission not knowing a whole lot of details but the Holy Spirit gave us peace and zeal. Our plans for traveling down a day early to go to Galveston worked out perfectly and God provided us with a much needed vacation and the chance for Luke, 6 years old, and Sarah, 2 years old, to see the beach for the first time.

The mission itself was not without struggle. We were physically tired from the long days, emotionally drained from traveling with children, and on Saturday, Sarah got a stomach virus. But it was all worth it. We managed to work things out so that Stan and Luke were able to go the mission on Saturday while Sarah and I stayed at our host family’s house. By Easter morning, she was fine and we were all together again.

On the surface, the mission seems like an excellent response to the call from John Paul II to go and preach the Gospel in the streets and from the rooftops. We know we have the tremendous gift of faith that is worth infinitely more than anything else we have to offer anyone. So why not go door-to-door?

As we arrived to the mission, found out more details, and began our work, it occurred to me that the more we experienced the mission, the better we enjoyed it. Several factors made this Holy Week an incredible tool for bringing others to Christ, including my own family.

An Enthusiastic Community

One afternoon as we were all about to start our second day of door-to-door missions, I walked back inside to grab a water bottle. As I passed all the moms and dads and little children I thought, “These people look like ordinary families doing the ordinary family business of getting snacks, changing diapers, moms chatting, dads carrying diaper bags and pushing strollers.” But, as I walked through the room, I realized that behind the ordinary appearances was something extraordinary. All of these people, whom I could pass by any day along the aisles of the grocery store or at the neighborhood park, were willing to go out and forget about themselves for three days, knock on strangers’ doors, and pray in the middle of their driveways with them. It was a surreal experience!

A Contagious Solidarity

God made us capable of feeling a strong sense of empathy in our experiences with other people. Have you ever watched a sad movie and
Door to door missions work is a tough job.
Door to door missions work is a tough job.
really felt like you had just grieved, or watched a football game and felt the same adrenaline rush as if you had scored the touchdown, or watched someone walk down the sidewalk carrying something heavy and you “felt” for them?. God “hardwired” us to be able to feel and learn from each other’s experience, so that little children could watch their parents and learn good things, and so that we could connect emotionally with each other. As parents, we try to surround our kids with other kids who do good things so that their good example has a positive effect on our own kids. I was thinking about this one afternoon as my son and two other children ran (not walked) to door after door after door. They were not just goofy kids running around. They were genuinely excited when we walked up to a door and saw a cross above the door bell. And thanks to that God-given capacity for empathy and solidarity, we could feel each other’s excitement. Their boldness was literally contagious.

One time, we saw that someone had the scripture from Joshua “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” posted on their house. Seeing it, Luke exclaimed, “They already believe in Jesus! That’s awesome!” As if he was thinking, well our work is half done here! Then, at another home where the woman invited us in, Luke looked up at me with gleaming, hopeful eyes and asked, “Is she Catholic? Does she go to St. James?” When I told him that she did go to St. James, he shouted, “Yes!” I could just see how happy he was! And we were surrounded by kids and teens having the same reaction.

I can’t imagine a better way to help my kids possess their faith as they grow and be able to cling to Christ when they are faced with so many other “gods” to serve as they become adults. When we were on the mission, my kids were young, so their evangelization was in simple, sweet ways…the smiles on their faces, the careful yet backwards sign of the cross before we began to pray, the eagerness to hand someone a flyer with Mass and confession times on it, the scanning of the front door to see if there was a cross or a statue or Scripture verse anywhere, the little voices praying the Our Father in doorways and on sidewalks, in driveways and in the middle of the street. But, as they mature, so will the faith that they are able to share. They will grow in boldness with strangers so that they will also be able to be bold with their friends at home. They will stand next to other teens as they knock on doors and proclaim their love for Christ and they will remember that they were not alone in their efforts to be bold.

Catch Them Early

We walked door-to-door with several families, some with little ones in strollers, some with teens and some in between. I could pick out the teens who had been on missions before (some of them with groups going door-to-door for over a month in other countries over the summer without their parents) and see the difference between them and the teens who had never been on a mission before. The more experienced teens spoke to the strangers before the parents even had a chance. They prayed out loud spontaneously for the needs of the strangers and spoke in Spanish right away when they realized someone didn’t speak English well. But the ones who were less experienced had the typical teenage self-consciousness deeply embedded, and seemed much more comfortable standing at the end of the driveway or hanging back from the group. So what a blessing it was for the young kids to learn to be bold and fearless missionaries, and to forget themselves before they ever learned that they were doing something unusual!

Warning: Leave SELF on Sidewalk

I think we have all been in a situation where we realized that someone was going to think, “This person is a religious fanatic!” But, you can probably guess that this thought is going to run through plenty of people’s minds as they open the door to 3 adults and 6 children wearing the same t-shirts and crosses with pamphlets with Jesus on the front, asking them if they have any prayer intentions—and “By the way can we just pray with you right here?” So, you have to get accustomed to just leave yourself behind and truly put on Christ. I am a pretty bold person when it comes to proclaiming my faith (my Protestant extended family has given me plenty of opportunities to practice!) but I had to consciously tell myself, “I have the incredible gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, the gift of the priests to hear my confessions, the enormity of the truth, so how can I not go out and tell others?” And there were still times we would be talking to someone and they would respond vaguely to one our questions and I would freeze up. I wouldn’t be able to think of something
Stan, Elizabeth, Luke and Sarah: ready to preach the Good News.
Stan, Elizabeth, Luke and Sarah: ready to preach the Good News.
good to say to them. I think in those moments I must have started thinking of myself and I wasn’t able to hear the Holy Spirit’s whisperings. Just as a high wire acrobat is told, “Don’t look down!”, I think at times I must have “looked down” and was suddenly rendered unable to think. That left me with the opportunity to rely on Jesus to make up for what I lacked, to fill in those empty silences, to work on that person’s heart long after they had shut the door on me.

We had time in between doors or later in the evenings, so I was able to reflect on the different people we had encountered. In hindsight, I realized so many things I could have said, so many things that might have helped the person. One man in particular opened the door and we could see his body covered in tattoos. His shirt said in big letters “TATTOO ARTIST”, and he wore a chain with a cross. My group kind of clammed up and Stan and I started talking to him. I asked him if he were Catholic and he said no, but that he wore the cross because he believed. He said he had messed up a lot and that he had been in prison several times and he didn’t go to any church in particular. Stan has had some experience with tattoo artists at his workplace so he complimented him on his work and asked him about some of the tattoos. He didn’t want to pray with us because he said he wouldn’t know how (this was a response we heard a lot, especially from men) so he started to go back in and we said goodbye. As we got down the driveway he came back out and wanted to talk some more. Just chit chat, nothing really big. But it was obvious he didn’t want us to leave. He got really excited when he remembered some doves had laid two eggs in his tree, so we lifted our kids up to see the low nest. He wanted to share something with us and he didn’t want us to leave until he had given something back. As we began to talk with him a little more and the subject moved back to Christ, his telephone rang and he ran inside to get it, saying it was an important call. Saved by the bell! I secretly hoped the phone call was someone inviting him to church or something.

Looking back, I wish I would have told him, “Our faith is one of starting over— every day if you have to. That’s the beauty of the spiritual life and our Catholic faith with confession. We come into the light and see where we messed up and then we’re born again in Christ to do it over. We can learn from our mistakes, grow in virtue...” I wanted to tell him how the prison system or society or maybe even his family might not be willing to give him that second, third, or fourth chance, but Christ is willing to. I wanted to tell him that he could go to St. James around the corner and talk to Father Charles about “starting over”, about the real meaning of the cross around his neck, about his life. But those words were just thoughts that got offered up at Mass for him in the hope that somehow he will come to realize them.

“I Am a Missionary”

There is no better way to spend Holy Week than by going on missions, and there is no better way to convince myself that I am in fact a missionary with a very distinct mission to bring Christ to this world. By the end of the week, I think we all realized that going door-to-door is nothing compared with being charitable in the long dinner lines with rambunctious children spilling lemonade in the corner, with the noise level growing each moment, with tired, hungry children looking across the room for me and soon to wander off… and with me knowing that if I leave my place in line we’ll never get to eat and we’ll be in this vicious cycle until midnight. So little by little, or should I say door by door, my “mission” became more and more concrete in my heart. Sure, I knew it before we went but somehow it is deeper, more real now. And, now I can look at Luke and say, “This is not how a missionary family behaves. We cannot talk to each other this way. You can’t keep pestering your sister this way. We have to encourage each other in virtue because we are missionaries.”

Proclaim the Gospel, But Use Words Only When Necessary

Of course there were many doors that remained closed to us. But we still have the hope that those who might have been inside looking out saw our crosses and watched us walk away from their door with our t-shirts proclaiming “Be Not Afraid!”. This was the second time this particular neighborhood had Catholic missionaries going out during Holy Week. So, maybe not this year or even next year… but maybe on the 8th year they will remember our presence and have the courage to open their door. Or, for those people who immediately dismissed us because we are “Catholic Missionaries” and they personally belong to some Protestant denomination, maybe just seeing us out there with our children planted a seed in their hearts. Many homes in this neighborhood were devoid of children. Some older people seemed very lonely. Maybe just seeing those smiling (or sometimes sleeping) faces from the strollers helped them get through the loneliness of the day. Or maybe it caused some to stop and think about what it took for a family to be going door to door in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday or Friday….the men obviously had to take off work, the kids were cranky sometimes, and our motley crew standing at the door had to proclaim the message of life in some way to the people on the other side of the door.

Those are the things we may never know, but that’s almost the best part of this great adventure: knowing and hoping to see God’s awesome work, knowing that someday we will be able to know how he wove all these families and experiences and sacrifices into the salvation of the world.



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