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At small Ohio parish, evangelization starts with a candle

When Lina Simms first read about the global prayer movement Nightfever, she thought, “Wow, that’s really cool.”

But then she thought to herself, “Our parish could not do something like that.”

Volunteer “inviters” outside St. James Parish in Lakewood, Ohio invite passersby to enter the Church and light a candle. Credit: John Sabo.

Sprung from World Youth Day 2005 in Germany, Nightfever is a movement of young Catholics sharing God’s love with others through evenings of prayer.

Like many youth-oriented church events, a Nightfever evening includes Mass, adoration, and music. Priests are available for confession or counsel.

But it also includes a unique evangelizing dimension: Volunteers invite passersby off the street to come inside to pray or light a candle during the event.

Simms loved the idea. But she thought it would be much too large of an undertaking for her parish to recreate.

St. James Parish in Lakewood, Ohio shares its pastor with a neighboring parish. It serves a small congregation and employs only a few staff members.

“There’s certainly no director of evangelization,” Simms told The Pillar.

Still, the idea stuck with her. Simms soon found herself wondering if she might be able to implement a scaled-down version of the event, and if would draw her neighbors into an encounter with Jesus.

The parish’s location makes it an ideal venue for inviting strangers into the church. 

Lakewood, outside of Cleveland, is Ohio’s most densely populated city, and St. James is close to local restaurants, coffee shops and a bus stop.

“What kind of experience could we craft for someone — in an authentic way, obviously — to come in and experience Jesus, and to have that moment of something sacred?” Simms asked herself.

After a period of prayer and planning, “Light for Love” was born in 2019. On the fourth Wednesday of the summer months — when foot traffic around the parish is at its peak — Simms and a handful of volunteers spend the evening inviting passersby to come inside the church, and to light a candle for someone they love.

A child lights a candle during a Light for Love event at St. James Parish in Lakewood, Ohio. Credit: John Sabo.

Those who accept are given a candle. Inside they find a quiet, candlelit church — and Jesus waiting for them in the monstrance. At the foot of the altar, they can light their candles for their loved ones and place them among other attendees’ candles. Some take to a pew to pray or just sit in the silence of the church.

Simms estimates that Light for Love draws 100 to 130 participants on any given evening, about half of whom are people who happen upon the event by chance — or the Holy Spirit, she said.

“Sometimes people just need that invitation and that figurative handholding to take that step over the threshold of the church,” said Simms.

For many, she explained, that really is a big step.

“Those of us inside the Church — that’s no big deal. We cross over that threshold all the time,” Simms said. “But for a lot of people who haven’t been inside of a church, maybe ever? Wow, that’s a big deal. And they need someone who actually is coming out to them and inviting them.”

A priest prepares to offer benediction during a Light for Love event at St. James Parish in Lakewood, Ohio. Credit: John Sabo.

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Planting a seed

Evangelization may seem like an uphill battle in American culture.

But while the religiously disaffiliated continue to grow in number — nearly three in 10 Americans, per one Pew Research Center survey — they are not necessarily atheists.

In The Pillar’s 2021 survey, 44% of “nones” responded that they definitely believe in God, and 20% said that Jesus suffered and died to redeem our sins.

And in spite of declining participation in institutional religion, the majority of Gen Z still consider themselves “religious” or “spiritual,” another survey suggests.

Simms reflected that Christians today should ask for the intercession of St. Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians: “I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel.”

“To become all things to all people doesn’t mean to water down the Gospel,” Simms explained. “But it does mean to speak the good news in a way that it will be perceived as good. And I think a lot of times that’s the problem: that people don’t think that the good news actually is good for them.”

Lighting a candle on behalf of a loved one could be one such outreach.

“That’s something that every human being has in common,” said Simms. “Everybody has someone that they love.”

The people who accept her invitation into the church are frequently the ones she least expects. On one occasion, Simms recalled, she offered to hold a woman’s dog and cigarette so she could go inside the church. To her surprise, the woman agreed.

Credit: John Sabo.

“I think so often I’m quick to put the ‘no’ in someone else’s mouth,” Simms admitted, “but, you know, people want to be asked.”

When asked whether she and her volunteers have any means of follow-up with attendees, Simms said that she is at peace leaving up to God what happens after Light for Love events.

“We need to become less attached to reaping the harvest,” Simms said. “God will do that in his own time. And I think a lot of times the obedience we’re called to is being okay with not seeing the fruit of what we do.”

That’s not to say, however, that the participants are not impacted by the experience. Sometimes attendees stop to thank Simms and her volunteers on their way back out of the church. Sometimes they just seem more peaceful as they leave than they did upon entering.

“I have seen tears fall from those who haven’t attended church in a long time,” Heather Roberts, a parishioner of St. James and a Light for Love volunteer, told The Pillar.

“I have heard conversations on the way out, expressing gratitude for the church being open and allowing time to pray.”

Parishioners of St. James, who typically make up the remainder of the event’s attendees, have likewise been grateful for their time spent there. Simms recalled that one heavily involved parishioner shared that the event brought him back to the source of his faith.

“He came in and he thanked me,” said Simms, “and he said, ‘You know, I do all this stuff, but I sort of forgot what it was all about and who it was for, and this reminded me — so thank you.’”

A Light for Love event at St. James Parish in Lakewood, Ohio. Credit: John Sabo.

‘What I do have I give to you’

The evening itself is short and simple. In many ways, Light for Love is simply an evangelization-oriented holy hour, running from 7-8 p.m.

Initial setup costs included 100 to 150 candles – “I went to the dollar store,” Simms recalled – as well as a table and a couple custom banners to hang outside the church. Simms also had cards printed that read, “I light for love of__________”, for participants to fill out, and to leave in a dedicated basket by the altar.

In addition to the parish’s deacon, who exposes and reposes the Blessed Sacrament, Simms asked a handful of friends — mostly from her moms’ group — to staff the event. Volunteers (often accompanied by their families) perform one of three roles: inviter, greeter or intercessor.

Inviters stand near the street, where they’re close enough to pedestrians to ask them if they’d like to light a candle for someone they love.

Greeters stand behind the table by the steps of the church, where they pass out candles and explain what to expect inside. Sometimes a greeter is also stationed inside the doors of the church to show participants what to do once they enter.

A man places a candle during a Light for Love event at St. James Parish in Lakewood, Ohio. Credit: John Sabo.

Intercessors sit in the pews and pray for everyone attending and their intentions. Simms said the role of intercessor is good for individuals who feel less comfortable extending invitations or who feel a particular call to prayer.

Ideally she’d have at least two people in each role, but she has made do with fewer. Even with a small group, setup and takedown require only half an hour or so before and after.

A representative of the Nightfever organization told The Pillar that the organization’s leaders do not support people hosting similar events without working directly with their organization, which trains and supports volunteers all over the world in putting on Nightfever evenings.

But Simms and her team do not claim to belong to the Nightfever movement or use its name for their event. And in many ways, Light for Love has taken on a spirit of its own — one defined by the characteristics of a small parish with fewer-than-average resources.

Simms is reassured by the simplicity of the apostles’ ministry after Jesus ascended into heaven.

“It’s like what St. Peter says in Acts when he encounters that person who wants to be healed,” she said, referring to the story of a man crippled from birth who asked Peter and John for alms, depicted in Acts 3:1 – 10.

“[Peter] says, ‘I don’t have silver and gold but what I do have I give to you,’ and he helps that person walk. What we have to give is Jesus himself.”

She laughed, adding, “And that’s all we have.” 

Benediction during a Light for Love event at St. James Parish in Lakewood, Ohio. Credit: John Sabo.

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‘Disciples inspire disciples’

While the ministry at this point draws scores of passersby into the church at each event, Simms said there have been learning experiences along the way. Light for Love went on hiatus in 2020 and 2022 due to Covid, and because Simms and her husband had brand-new babies those summers.

In retrospect, Simms wonders whether she could have put someone else in charge in her absence.

With a little adaptation, Simms thinks Light for Love can be replicated at other parishes, although she noted that it’s an event best suited to parishes located in cities or walkable neighborhoods, due to the spontaneous nature of inviting people passing by.

She stressed the importance of consistent scheduling, in order to create a predictable rhythm for volunteers and parishioners.

Simms also emphasized the vital role of prayer in developing any ministry: “You just really need to undergird everything with prayer leading up to it.”

Volunteers light candles during a Light for Love event at St. James Parish in Lakewood, Ohio. Credit: John Sabo.

For Simms, one of the biggest takeaways has been the impact of one person or group’s efforts on the larger Church.

In addition to being influenced by the example of Nightfever, her own approach to ministry has been heavily influenced by the resources and community she has found in evangelist and author Sherry Weddell’s “Forming Intentional Disciples Forum,” a Facebook group that boasts some 12,000 members.

And Simms hopes that her small “yes” can continue the momentum of evangelization that first piqued her own interest.

“Sometimes you just don’t know who you’re gonna inspire,” she said.

“Disciples inspire disciples.”

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This article is part of The Pillar's solutions-oriented series highlighting parishes across the U.S. You can read more from this series here.

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