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Evangelization does not stop at the church door

Jeff Andrini is evangelizing, energizing and inviting others to share God’s good news
 
Oct. 28, 1988.
 
Twenty-five years ago, Jeff Andrini had a conversion experience at an unlikely venue — a Van Halen concert at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center.
 
Jeff, then a senior at Marquette University, had turned away from God and questioned his Catholic faith. In the words of the Van Halen song, he had tuned in to all the world has to offer — partying, poor relationships with women, failing grades, bad choices.
 
Halfway through the concert, a song began with the lyrics, “I don’t know what I am living on, but it’s not enough to fill me up” and further it said, “you do not have to die to go to heaven, just tune into what this world has to offer.”
 
The emptiness of his life hit him: “I’m entering a world and what I’m getting is a living hell. What I’m missing is God,” he recalls.
 
At that moment the thought went through his mind,
“Do you see how clearly you’re seeing the truth?”
 
And, for the next 10 seconds, the near-sighted Jeff, who had a $22 ticket in the nosebleed section, could see the beads of sweat on the band members’ foreheads. “It was a powerful moment,” says Jeff.
That night, he uncharacteristically dropped his friends off at a bar and drove his signature VW van straight home. “I said, ‘God, if what I experienced tonight was real and what I’m missing in my life is you, I want to know it. It was just stopping in my tracks and turning toward God,” he recalls.
 
He opened the Bible to Galatians 5:16, which lists the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit. If there was a verse that spoke to me that night out of any verse in that whole Bible, that was it. ... I have no peace,” Jeff recalls thinking. “I have no joy. I am a mess. I am a train wreck.”
 
Jeff wept, and he prayed. He experienced a “moment of grace.” He had a vision that he was high above the earth, seeing a tiny light. As he got closer, he realized the light was surrounding him as he prayed on his bed. “I felt full of light — just feeling so grateful that I had this moment with God.”
 
The story could have ended there, but, in fact, it was just beginning. Jeff cleaned house, visited a priest, began to pray daily and brought his grades up.
 
 
‘A shining light in our community’
After college, Jeff joined the National Evangelization Teams, an organization that provides retreats and outreach to young people around the country. There, he met Amy Lothschutz of Grand Haven. The team visited Amy’s home parish, St. Patrick.
 
Three months later, in 1990, Jeff became director of youth ministry there. He and Amy were married in 1991, and did youth ministry together at the parish for a few years. Five years later, their first child was born.

Then, Jeff heard from his former youth minister, who had started a national organization called Cultivation Ministries. Based in St. Charles, Ill., the organization provided training and resources to parishes and dioceses building youth ministry programs.
 
“It was rooted in evangelization —helping Catholics realize the gift of their faith,” said Jeff. The work was rewarding. When his oldest daughter began kindergarten, however, he found the evenings and weekends away difficult for his family life.
 
He and Amy decided to return to Grand Haven, and Jeff began looking into jobs at area businesses. He then learned of an opening for a faith formation director at St. Patrick, and got in touch with the pastor, Father Bill Langlois. He joined the staff in 1999, confident after talking with Father Bill that he would be able to balance ministry and being a husband and father.
 
“God always goes beyond my expectations. To work in this parish and with Father Bill, with a priest I so admire and respect, who for me represents the very core values of Jesus. To work for him for these 14 years has been such a gift,” he says.
Jeff says he also feels grateful to be part of such a “vibrant, alive” community that lives up to its mission statement: “We are a welcoming community alive in Christ making present the kingdom of God.”
 
“We’re so blessed to have his gifts,” says Father Bill, calling Jeff an educator, a teacher and a strong man of faith. “He is just a shining light in our community.”
 
Encouraged by his pastor, friends and parishioners, Jeff marked the anniversary of his conversion experience by sharing his story at Mass.
 
“I really wanted to celebrate this 25 years,” he says. “I’m so blessed. I have a loving wife, and four beautiful kids. I work in an amazing community. I’m able to share what God’s done in my life and see God working all around me. All of that is so powerful and such a blessing.”
 
Jeff has devoted his ministry to helping others see God working in their own lives, and, in turn, sharing their stories with others.
 
The formal term for that is evangelization, which Jeff says can be “a scary word” for Catholics. “We have this big churchy word, we don’t know quite what it is,” he says. “But, to me, evangelization is about sharing God’s story and our experience of God’s story with others.
 
‘Meeting people where they are’
As faith formation director at St. Patrick-St. Anthony, “everything we do is evangelistic,” says Jeff.
 
The “churchy” definition of evangelization is the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ, he says. “Most people don’t feel qualified to proclaim the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
 
“But can you tell God’s story? How did God work in your life in the last week? That’s evangelization: The proclamation of how God is working in my life is something that people need to hear. It makes it real and concrete and it’s ordinary. It doesn’t have to be this extraordinary thing or this big huge program in our parish.”
 
Much of his ministry is pre-evangelization, which comes down to creating the right atmosphere. “If you’re going to have people to your home, you clean the house, get a bottle of wine out, have some appetizers. You create a warm, hospitable place,” says Jeff.
 
Likewise, with pre-evangelization, “You’re creating the right environment, the place where people want to be, where people feel welcomed, feel accepted, they’re not judged,” he explains.
 
For example, at a meeting to prepare families for their child’s first Eucharist, many parents come in “petrified” that they’ll be quizzed on their Catechism. Jeff serves wine, cheese and grapes. The message he wants to send is: “Come, and welcome, and I have some incredible news about what the Eucharist is in our lives and what your kids are experiencing.
 
“I think they walk away going, ‘Wow, we need to do more of this in our lives.’ As opposed to ‘You need to bring your kids to church every Sunday.’ It’s invitational, it’s caring, it’s meeting people where they are.”
 
Today, adults have so much competing for their time — work, family commitments, and more. “We need to make liturgy and community life and formation an experience that they choose to want to do instead of something we’re demanding, or an obligation,” he says.
 
To Jeff, that is evangelization: “It’s creating the right atmosphere to be able to share God’s story, and share our stories of God, in a way that makes sense. That’s what prayer is, just pausing and recognizing God’s with me.”

At St. Patrick, faith formation opportunities abound and are tailored to fit into people’s busy lifestyles.
One example are the Book Clubs, small Christian communities that meet once a month to discuss the Scripture readings planned for the coming Sunday. Parishioners gather at someone’s home. The meeting begins with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and dessert.
 
What follows is an opening prayer, discussion about the readings, a closing prayer and a song. “It’s not rocket science,” says Jeff. “It’s just getting people together in a relaxed atmosphere to share faith.”
 
The program has grown in popularity, with 24 groups of eight to 14 members meeting monthly and then joining together the third weekend of the month for “Book Club Sunday.”
 
St. Patrick also offers 24-hour retreats for men and women, a candlelight Advent dinner for women, a wild game dinner for men, a Blarney Blast and more.
 
 
Evangelization does not stop at the church door. Lay people represent Christ in in their work, their families and other activities, says Jeff. “What an impact we can have if we live out our faith in all those places.”
Once seen as the work of bringing faith to others, evangelization applies just as much to cradle Catholics.
 
Some estimate that as many as 15 million Catholics have left the Church in the United States, Jeff says; “Many have joined other denominations because they never experienced that relationship with Jesus Christ. They were taught the teachings but they don’t even know what they believe because it was never internalized.”
 
The challenge of evangelization is to make what Jeff’s pastor back in high school described as “the longest journey in someone’s life ... from their head to their heart.”
 
Parishes, said Jeff, can do the work of evangelization by meeting people where they are, welcoming them well, teaching simple ways to pray, offering excellence in ministry and liturgy and providing a variety of activities where adults can “plug into” the community.
 
Whether a person has left the Church or just become apathetic, God’s door is always open. “It’s very easy to make poor choices in life,” says Jeff. “God just wants to welcome us back and give us a full, abundant life. It’s just a matter of us turning and asking.”
 
The answer can be life-changing, much like that night in Milwaukee was for Jeff 25 years ago.
 
The New Evangelization, says Jeff, “is about experiencing God, not just knowing God. All of a sudden you look out and the world is more beautiful. It changes your perspective. In our hearts, we need to turn to God and open that door and let him into our lives.”
 
written by Tom Kendra/Photography by Jonathan Tramontana
Photo descriptions: 1.) Jeff Andrini; 2.) Jeff talks with parishioners inside St. Patrick Church; 3.) Jeff and his wife Amy with their four children; 4.) Jeff meets with participants of one of the many Bible study groups at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Catholic Community.