The sign outside of St. Ignatius Parish in Concord Hill says, “I am with you. It’s going to be okay.”
It’s an encouraging message that speaks to people who drive past the Warren County church on a daily basis, and for those who stop for private prayer, eucharistic adoration or confessions — all opportunities since public Masses were suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Like many priests, pastor Father Steve Robeson has been doing what he can to remain engaged with parishioners and to serve as an encouraging presence for people in the community. In addition to private prayer and eucharistic adoration at church, the priest has started an effort that some might consider “roadside evangelization” — quite literally sitting alongside the road, offering a smile and friendly wave to passersby, and an invitation to stop and chat.
“That’s what I want, lots of people passing me by,” he said.
Since early May, Father Robeson has been sitting outside the church sign along Mill Road, waving at people and giving folks an encouraging thumbs up. Those greetings are most always reciprocated with a wave and a smile. An extra chair strategically placed at least six feet away from Father Robeson also has served as an invitation to stop for a quick chat, prayer or even a confession or two.
Father Robeson’s routine has included a drive to the intersection of Highways 47 and 94, where he parks his car alongside the road near the St. Ignatius parish sign. Perched next to his car are two images of Jesus the Divine Mercy and a handmade sign that says, “He is with you. Need to talk?”
“Whatever way people are coming, they can see Jesus,” he said. He’s had takers, too, including someone riding a trike motorcycle and others on their way to the nearby Katy Trail or wineries.
“Last week, one lady who goes to a Christian church in Warrenton pulled up and said, ‘OK pastor, whaddya got for me?’ I gave her the weekend homily from Good Shepherd Sunday.” He also spoke to her about God’s mercy. “I told her I want you to know His mercy goes wherever you go on your bike,” Father Robeson recalled. “And if you don’t think of Him, He thinks of you.” She thanked him for sharing the Word, and off she went.
Father Robeson also has had several Catholics stop to tell him they needed to make an appointment for confession, or just to talk about something. “There have been several other people who have pulled up just to talk about their lives,” he said. “I like to call it a volume ministry. It’s not a high percentage of people, but with all the cars going by, I’m gonna get some.”
The idea for the roadside evangelization was inspired in April after meditating on the cross as Lent was concluding. Father Robeson connected it to a long-held desire, stemming back to his seminary days, looking for ways to bridge the gaps. He looked up to people who were putting their lives on the line for life and justice, including the
late Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred in 1980, and St. John Paul II.
“I go out to this intersection after reflecting on the cross,” he said. “I figure at an intersection — which is a cross — on any given day there are hundreds of people. Each one of them has got a story, and a lot of those stories have hurt in it. I’m hoping they will see His portrait of mercy, and see somebody waving at them and think, ‘God is thinking of me,’ or ‘It’s gonna be OK.’”
St. Ignatius Parish has ramped up its efforts to make eucharistic adoration available throughout the week. To accommodate farmers and others who have to rise early for work, Father Robeson began offering a 6 a.m. Mass on Thursdays. Parishioners have signed up for adoration times before and after that Mass, too.
“The people here are so good,” he said. “All I had to do was preach on it twice and we went from four people a month to 50 hours a month — and I don’t know how many dozens of people, just responding to a devotion to the Eucharist here.”
Since the coronavirus outbreak, extra adoration times have temporarily replaced the regularly scheduled Saturday evening vigil and Sunday morning Mass times. Parishioner Stacy Kloeppel has coordinated the adorers’ schedule, ensuring that visitors are limited to no more than 10 people at a time, adhering to social distancing guidelines.
“It’s nowhere close to our full weekend Mass attendance,” he said. “A lot of folks have been staying away — our seniors especially. But people have been loving it. We have extra readings out. There are extra Rosaries being prayed. Some families will take
their kids around the Stations of the Cross.”
Father Robeson has continued to celebrate Mass privately (that will change on May 18, when parishes are able to resume public Masses), but he was unable to find someone to help with livestreaming those Masses. He continues to keep in touch with parishioners via drive-by visits, phone calls, email, Facebook page and parish bulletin (he’s mailed some directly to parishioners’ homes upon request).
Father Robeson has been missing his people. Parishioners recently organized a drive-by parade in May to show their pastor they’ve been missing him, too.
“I am missing the crowds — I am sure many priests have said this. I really dislike this priesthood without the eucharistic assembly. It’s just me and Jesus and the angels — I guess that’s my assembly right now.”
Jeanne Dothage works outside of the home during the day and hadn’t had a chance to attend eucharistic adoration until it was offered in lieu of the Saturday evening vigil Mass. Even being able to see Father Robeson get up in front of church before adoration and offer a prayer has been such a blessing, she said. “I about cried, I loved it. I was so glad you did that,” she told her pastor.
Dothage added that she’s also missed the social interaction with fellow parishioners. “After Mass, you stand out here and talk,” she said. “A lot of times (after Mass) we go up to Treloar to the bar and grill, and there’s a big table full. We can’t do any of that, out here or up there.”
Jackie Heggemann also began attending adoration at St. Ignatius not long after public Masses were cancelled. She’s been watching livestreamed Masses at home, “but it’s just not the same. I miss being in church. I look forward to giving hugs again.”