In about the time it takes to make a couple of cappuccinos,
you are going to hear how Christ has called on you to change the world. Not
simply, “Be a better person,” but how you
can change the world.
On the surface this sounds like an impossible task: How can
one person change the world? Start here: Since it is your God-given, assigned
duty to do so, it must be possible, even
though you may not think so.
Some ignore their calling to evangelize. I get that. When
your image of Christian evangelization starts with a man or woman on a street
corner with a bullhorn in one hand and a “Repent Now or You’re Going to Hell!”
sign in the other, interest in evangelization tends to evaporate rather
But humor me for a moment: Suppose the “Bullhorn + You’re
Going to Hell sign” formula of street corner evangelization is not the only way
to evangelize. What other approach might be a better fit for you? Before you
totally write-off the idea of evangelization, shouldn’t you at least take a
look at what other options there might be?
To answer these questions, let’s start by looking for some
inspiration. Let’s look at the life of prisoner #16770. The time is August,
1941. Nazi extermination camp; Auschwitz-Birkenau. After a successful escape attempt
by a fellow prisoner, ten prisoners were randomly selected to be put to death.
Prisoner #1-6-7-7-0 stepped forward and said, “I want to die in place of this
And so it was, that at age 47 Fr. Maximilian Kolbe
volunteered to trade places with a young husband and father. Fr. Kolbe died by
lethal injection, after two weeks of starvation failed to kill him.
How do you interpret Fr. Kolbe’s action? All things being
equal, Fr. Kolbe already had his salvation. He was prayerful and holy his entire
life, yet he felt called to further action. Note that his action could have
been limited to silent prayer for the condemned. The question must be asked: Why
didn’t he just keep his mouth shut, pray, and do nothing more?
Simple answer: Christ called him, just like Christ calls you,
to make your environment more Christian. Sometimes prayer must be combined with
action, to produce a more Christian environment.
Make no mistake, development of your interior spiritual life
through prayer is paramount to a balanced existence. The fact is, if you fail
to pray, you have no interior spiritual life, and sooner or later, no matter
how much you help others, you will realize that you lack Jesus within you, and
need daily prayer. But a key point of this talk is to understand that
development of your interior spiritual life is only one aspect of what Christ
has called you to do. Pray!, Pray!, Pray!, as the Blessed Mother likes to say.
But understand you are called to not only develop a closer personal
relationship with Christ through prayer, but at the same time, to change your
environment so that all people, and not just you alone, have a closer personal
relationship with Christ. Jesus Christ should be your personal Lord and savior,
but Christianity was not meant to be the religion of a chosen few.
Fr. Kolbe stepped forward out of a desire to change his
environment, and make it more Christian. It was not a question of him trading
his life for one man – he wanted to change the overall environment. He did so
with pre-meditated and deliberate action. When the door clanged shut on the
condemned men, he took charge of them, and not just them, but the others who
were dying of hunger in cells nearby. It
is a fact that from the moment he came into their midst, those condemned people
felt a protective presence. Suddenly their cells resounded with hymns and
prayers. The SS guards themselves said, “We never saw anything like it before”,
and what they meant by that, was how one man’s action could have such a
tremendous effect on their environment. Imagine people singing and praying the
rosary, in Auschwitz of all places, as they were starved to death. Then imagine
what the guards must have felt, when they found the man they thought had
escaped, had actually drowned in the
latrine. From a Nazi mistake, a Saint was born that has become an example
to us all.
At a time when so many people dump their faith in Christ, Fr.
Kolbe leads by example. If you want the world to be a more Christian place,
start on your knees in prayer, but ultimately, you must get on your feet to change your environment. Key words: Your
environment. Nobody is suggesting that you take on something new. We’re talking about the transformation of
environments you already belong to. Your family. Your work. Your friends.
The message here is not, “Be like Fr. Kolbe and go die for someone.” The
message is, “Bloom where you are planted.” It just so happens Fr. Kolbe found
himself planted inside a Nazi death camp.
But in order to change an environment, you first have to recognize
when you’re in one. What makes up an environment? Is it bricks and mortar? Is
it climate? Is it decor? To a certain degree it is, but not entirely.
The environment we are speaking here is given life and
personality by people, not things. To create an environment, think along the
lines of a recipe. For any recipe, you need ingredients. There are three
ingredients necessary to create a living environment:
Ingredient #1: Two or more people
Ingredient #2: The circumstances that exist when the people
Ingredient #3: The ideals people express when they are
It has been said, “The eyes are the window to the soul”. In
the same manner, Ingredient #3, the ideals people express when they are
together, also form a window, through which you can view the soul of the
environment. Whenever you are communicating with one or more people, ask
yourself one question: Are the ideals being expressed here Christian ideals? If
not, you have a choice: Do nothing, say nothing, write nothing, post nothing, or
do something and help bring them from where they are, to where they ought to be.
But even though you may see an opportunity to make an
environment more Christian, the next step is not to take action. Impulsive
reactions, become tomorrow’s apologies. Instead of saying or doing something you
might regret, formulate a reply in your mind.
I’ve found myself more than once trying to evangelize in the
wrong place, at the wrong time, because I failed to plan and just reacted in
the moment. Environments are not necessarily changed when you want them to be;
events unfold in God’s time. But even if you’re patient, the question remains:
How do you know when to act? Should you wait for a better opportunity to come
along? And when taking action, what should the plan be? Answer:
How should I know? How should you know? Don’t ask me, and
don’t ask yourself– ask God. In other words, pray. You have to pray before
acting. You have to talk to God about
man, before you talk to man about God.
After I made realized the above, my faith came alive and I
became interested in changing my environments. Nevertheless, I had minimal
prior experience with prayer. At the time, “self-made” was not only my motto,
it was my license plate, and I was not in a habit of praying before acting; I
just acted. But I was presented with a situation that challenged me to give
prayer a try.
I was doing some volunteer work at the food distribution
center in Orange, known as “Second Harvest.” Second Harvest is a giant food
warehouse. Several hundred non-profit agencies go there to do their grocery
shopping. I noticed that when people came to buy groceries, many of them would
drive up to the loading dock in vehicles that were hardly more than running
At the same time I was volunteering, Bank of America donated
three used vans to Second Harvest. Thirty-four non-profit agencies submitted
written requests for the three vans, but with only three vans to give away,
that meant 31 agencies would get nothing.
I asked a friend of mine who worked full-time at Second
Harvest to give me the applications from all the agencies that did not receive
a van. He handed me a pile of paper, two inches thick. As I read the requests,
it was obvious that all 31 agencies needed a van. How was I going to figure out
who had the most need? Reflecting on the above, I came to realize that by
myself, I was never going to figure out which agencies had the most need. So, I
prayed. Out of that pile of 31 requests, I asked God to help me select the
agency most in need. I was pointed to the request submitted by “Celebrate
Freedom Outreach”, a half-way house in Orange for men getting out of prison.
Bob Roll was listed as the contact person, so I called him.
Keep in mind we had never met or spoken to each other before. It was just
before Christmas, and Bob was working at the Celebrate Freedom Christmas tree
lot. I asked him questions about his organization, then I asked him about his
request for a van. Even though he had already been told that he would not be
receiving one of the vans donated by Bank of America, he was not depressed.
Even more remarkable, the van they owned just died for good that very morning,
and he still believed God would provide.
Just to make sure everything checked out, I drove to the
Christmas tree lot where Bob was working. He gave me more background about
Celebrate Freedom, and he explained specifically how they use the van to take
the men living there to Church, to work, to visit their probation officer, and
to visit their families on the weekend. Without transportation, all of this good
would collapse. After speaking with Bob about his ministry, I had a decision to
make: Do nothing, or help make an environment more Christian.
Bob and I left the tree lot and drove to MacPherson Ford,
where I bought them a 12-passenger van. Now, don’t stop reading here because
you can’t buy somebody a van. Keep going.
A few days later I met Bob at the men’s home in Orange, and
he gave me a tour of the house. Just as I was about to leave, he brought me
into the living room. Mounted on the wall was a glass case. On display inside
the case was their newsletter and some other general information. Very
prominent in the center of the glass case was a picture, placed inside the case
one year before I ever met Bob or heard of Celebrate Freedom.
The van purchased? It was the same as the magazine cutout
picture, down to the color.
Continuing further on the call to change our environment, I
decided the men living at Celebrate Freedom would appreciate a show of love
from other men. Once a month for two years my friends and I cook dinner for the
men in the home. After dinner, I lead the group in some teaching about Christ.
I’ll never forget the feelings of appreciation they show towards us, but more
to the point, the environment in the home is becoming more Christian, a little
bit at a time.
I tell you about my ongoing journey with Celebrate Freedom so
you know prayer and planning are the prerequisites to changing any environment.
I asked God to show me where He needed me, and He did.
When it’s all said and done; when you find yourself in an
environment that you should make more Christian; when prayer has lead you
believe it’s time to take action; what next? What is at the heart of any action
you might take? In the face of sin, exactly how do you transform people so they
freely elect to follow Christian ideals? Should your plan involve using logic,
and reason? Psychology? The power of persuasion? Do you debate them? Should you
infer Christians live a more happy life? Answer:
No. None of these tactics will work. Says who? Says St. Paul.
In the face of sin, it was St. Paul who said in Chapter 13 of his letter to the
Romans: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill;
you shall not steal; you shall not covet;’ and whatever other commandments
there may be, are summed up in this saying: ‘You shall love your neighbor as
yourself.’” Translation: Joyful love of neighbor is how you make any
environment more Christian. My friends and I unconditionally love our neighbors
at Celebrate Freedom; that’s why their environment is becoming more Christian.
It’s not a van, or a steak dinner; it’s our expression of Christ’s love.
The notion that you can love somebody into the body of
Christ, is really quite beautiful, but not easy. That’s not because people
reject love, so much as they see hatred everywhere they look. The hatred wears
you down. You plant love; Satan comes along and rips it out, planting hate
instead. Of all the evils to choose from in his arsenal, Satan chooses hatred
to cancel out love, and in so doing he actually proves St. Paul correct: Love
truly is the answer to creating more Christian environments. If this were not
true love would not be so under attack as it is.
Note that a more Christian environment will not be born
anywhere through peer pressure, mechanically going to church on Sunday, or
through the barrel of a gun, or the dictatorship of parental authority, or any
other method, except love. I didn’t
say these other methods haven’t been tried; throughout the course of history
they’ve all been tried. I just said they ultimately
don’t work. If someone has done something so horrendous that you want to
tell them that the action is despicable, go ahead. If you want to call someone
a scoundrel, go ahead. I don’t deny that there are times when that is a
thoroughly appropriate response. What I do deny is that it is an effective
strategy for changing your environment.
Even if what people are doing is wrong, even if errors of
morality are involved, even if what people are doing is irrational, you do not
lead people to virtue through contempt, pressure, and reciprocal hatred. You do
not make people better by telling them they are despicable. It just doesn’t
How do you make the connection between your love, and the
environment you wish to change?
Two words: SELF-GIVING. Self-giving is the term used to
describe our expression of love for people in any environment. Self-giving is
not a concept; it is an action statement.
Self-giving is not something you watch; it
is something you do.
Ever since Cain killed Abel, what has always been missing in
environments, are too few loving relationships. And it is only through
self-giving that we produce these loving relationships. Loving relationships
are the yeast that transforms environments. Without it, we cannot rise to
Christ’s call to be fully Christian.
Note that the reference to Cain and Abel hits close to home.
The environment most close to all of us, is our family. When we talk of the
need to produce more “loving relationships” through self-giving, our own family is the ideal place to start.
And the good news is, once you start leading people towards Christian behavior,
they begin to help each other. You can also join your efforts with others who
have the same Christian ideals.
However, none of this makes any difference, until you can
explain in more detail exactly how you “self-give”. “Self-centered” requires no
further explanation, but the term “self-giving” can sound vague, not to mention
it is subject to interpretation. One man’s self-giving, may be another man’s
Let me clarify the action of Christian “self-giving” by first
explaining what self-giving is not.
I have no brothers or sisters. I am not the product of a
divorced family. My father died when I was 34 years old. He had 34 years to say
to his only child, just one time, “I love you”.
He never did.
He had 34 years, just
one time, to kiss me, to hug me, or just put his arm around me.
He never did. Not once.
My dad never missed a Dodger game, a Lakers game, or a Rams
game on radio or TV. But do you think he ever attended any of my games? Do you
think he ever cheered for me when I played baseball, basketball, or football?
Dad was a good provider in the material sense. The only thing
missing, was a self-giving expression of Christian love.
I have three children. Determined not to repeat the mistakes
of my father, I went to their games. I encouraged them. I tell them I love
them. I hug and kiss them. Did I break the cycle my father learned from his
Yes, I broke the cycle of psychological abuse, but in the
context we are discussing, that’s not
what self-giving means. Christ called us to change our environments so they
become more Christian, not more like
Disneyland. I must report to you that at best, there is only a vague link
between taking my family on a picnic, and increasing their Christian
spirituality. So I tell my children I love them; is that uniquely Christian
behavior? Like the famous line to sell hamburgers, “Where’s the beef?”, I say,
“Where’s the Christianity?” Atheists love their children, too. Doctors who
abort babies have family picnics, too. Family picnics and hugs are wonderful,
but in and of themselves, they are not enough to make environments more
Christian. It takes more.
I have three adult children, and as of today two have lost
their faith, and it wasn’t because their father was not “self-giving” in a
worldly way. He was just not self-giving
enough in a Christian way. He was self-giving with money; I paid for their
college education. He was self-giving with time; I went to their ball games and
swim meets. He was self-giving with hugs and kisses; my children know I love
them. But until my I attended a Christian retreat called “Cursillo” in 1996, I was not self-giving of Christian teaching
and Christian example. I did not pray, and never did I lead my family in
prayer. I did not read the Bible myself, much less with my family. Relatively,
I did nothing to help those in need, nor did I lead others to do so. I did not
celebrate Mass; I endured it. I did not frequent the Sacraments. I earned an
“A” in worldly self-giving; but I got an “F”, in the Christian context.
Moving beyond changing your family environment, Christ
teaches us that we are called to change environments everywhere we go, but how
do you start? A group’s personality is the sum of all the individual
personalities. Considering the diverse nature and number of personalities,
things can get rather complex very quickly. Where do you begin building
Christian ideals? Who do you love first within the group? The most popular? The
most offensive? The smartest?
In any environment, three personalities exist. Identify and begin
with the authentic Christian leader; they are the key to helping you change any
The Followers lack strong convictions. They go with the flow,
even if that flow may be wrong in Christian terms.
The Impulsive act according to what mood they’re in. They’re
unreliable and unpredictable. They can not be enlisted to assist you in the
creation of a new Christian environment.
Then there are the leaders. In any environment, a few people
always exert more influence than the rest. When it comes to where you start
your self-giving, if possible, start with the leaders. Evangelizing the leader
simplifies the complexities of group personality. Note that “leader” does not
always mean “Boss”. We’ve all known bosses who did not have the respect of
The influence of leaders in our society can not be
underestimated. Every day people follow
charismatic leaders to moral destruction. And have you ever considered the
ripple effect on environments created by immoral and corrupt leaders?
But what if a Christian reached the leader first? When I went
to an Angel’s baseball game recently, I saw the father of two small children
wearing a hat that proudly proclaimed, “Porn Star”. How many people were
touched by the immoral ripple of his hat that day? As for me, rather than on
the spot, I prayed too late about what to do. When the thought came to me to
offer the man $20 for his hat, I was already at home and in the shower. But
make no mistake; the idea to buy his “Porn Star” crown came from answered
prayer. Had I thought to turn to prayer sooner, that hat would be where it
belongs right now; in with the rest of my garbage, instead of rippling through
the crowd at the next Angel game.
Perhaps you’re thinking this call to action, this call to
change your environments, is outside your comfort zone. Let’s talk about
comfort zone for a moment: given the choice between waving a magic wand to make
Auschwitz a more Christian place, or dying of starvation and lethal injection,
which do you think Fr. Kolbe would choose?
Thankfully, there isn’t any magic wand in the real world,
allowing us a chance to be the hands and feet of Christ today. Do not be put
off by leaving your comfort zone; the discomfort you may feel is normal. God
gave us the Saints, like St. Maximilian Kolbe, to show us the way to the
Speaking of comfort zones, four days a week I volunteered at
a non-profit organization called Taller San Jose, which is a Santa Ana based
adult school and woodshop for former gang members. It was obvious that the
environment in the woodshop could be more Christian: almost every employee was
a convicted felon. I prayed for discernment on what to do. I was lead to
approach Jose, the leader in the woodshop, and propose voluntary attendance for
a lunchtime Bible study class. I would be the teacher. I knew if I convinced
Jose to attend, the others would follow. And follow they did.
One day, after reading a scripture passage about the poor, I
set a plastic bowl in the woodshop office with a paper sign taped to it. The
sign read, “Donations For the Homeless”. Workers would drop their extra change
into the bowl until we had enough money to buy a Whopper lunch for the woman who sleeps on a
Was I outside my comfort zone teaching felons and former gang
members about Jesus? About scripture? About Christian behavior? About serving
Yes, I was outside my comfort zone.
But so was He.
In the end, maybe some of the guys stole the money for the
poor. And maybe none of them remember a word I said in Bible study. On the
other hand, maybe they didn’t steal the money. The point is, I acted. I refused
to become cynical. By definition, if you are moved to action after prayer, you
can not fail because it is Christ Himself that has called you. What is crucial
is that you make no judgments about your efforts. Simply leave the results up
to God. Results are not your problem.
When it is all said and done, there is great danger to you in
both successfully changing an environment, or failing to do so. Satan lurks in
both failure, and success. It is all too easy when we succeed in bringing
people closer to Christ, to forget that we are mere channels for His redemptive
work. We become prideful, and expect to be rewarded for our efforts. We remain
interested in serving Jesus, just so long as we see immediate results.
Conversely, if we fail to make progress after what we consider to be an
adequate amount of time and effort, we quit. We leave the conversion of
environments to others, even though when you look around, there are no
“others”. Note that all of the apostles, except John, died violent deaths. I’m
sure they wished for some “others” from time to time, but they were it.
Furthermore, they were apparent failures at their assigned task of making their
environments more Christian. Caesar appeared to have an iron grip over a world
of pagan gods. The early Apostles rarely saw the fruit of their work. More
often than not, they were run out of town just ahead of an angry mob. Yet here
we are today, still talking about that guy named Jesus. If they answered Jesus’
call, why can’t you? If they never quit, why should you?
Let me close by saying that you have heard me mention several
times, “we are called to make our environments more Christian”. The misleading
part of that statement is in the inference that “we”, us mere creatures of God,
are the ones that “make” things happen. Let me be clear to you about one thing:
Without the blood of Christ, we can make NOTHING happen in the spiritual realm.
Pity the man who believes it is his own efforts that produce an increase in
faith, incites men to virtue, or puts an end to sin. Without question, it is
through men, but not because of men, that we find our way to salvation and
change our environments.
It is no coincidence that the patron Saint of Cursillo is St.
Paul. After his conversion, he spent his life either in prayer, or working to
make environments more Christian. What an honor it is that Christ calls on us
to carry on the traditions originally set in motion by Paul, and the other
Apostles. I am not so much overwhelmed that I know Christ and St. Paul, as that
Christ and St. Paul know me.
But the central question poised by this writing, is not
whether Jesus and St. Paul know me, or even whether they know you. The central
question is this:
Will you help us make our environments more Christian?