IOWA CITY — University of Iowa students Thomas Asama and Luz Martinez approached a group of passersby outside a downtown sushi restaurant, inviting them to share prayer intentions or take a candle and head to St. Mary Catholic Church a few blocks away to pray. There, they could light the candles, place them near the altar and pray before the Blessed Sacrament.
After passersby took tea candles and began to walk toward the church, Martinez’s face lit up with a smile. Each time someone accepted the invitation, “you can feel it (here),” she said, placing her hand over her heart.
For several hours that evening, April 28, young adults invited people in downtown Iowa City to “Nightfever.” The event provided an opportunity “to have that encounter with God in the hopes that they’ll feel drawn into relationship with him,” said Mafer Larraga Martinez, one of the student leaders. St. Mary’s was chosen as the church due to its proximity to downtown.
All 30 volunteers were young adults, mostly University of Iowa students and members of the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City. Some volunteers prepared St. Mary’s for what one student leader called an “open house for Jesus.” With lights dimmed, the church was illuminated by candlelight. A young adult worship team provided music to set the mood and to offer privacy to guests who chose to make their confession to one of several priests in attendance. Other volunteers took to the streets to offer invitations.
“We weren’t sure who was going to show up,” said Jocie Zenner as she lit guests’ candles in the church. “There’s been a steady flow of people coming in and out.” Among them was a Lutheran woman who said she enjoyed the fact that everyone was welcome. Zenner said many people commented that the church setup was “peaceful and beautiful.”
Back on the streets, Andrew Sherer and Naomi Smullen asked people if they had any prayer intentions. “A lot of people will tense up at first,” Sherer said. “Then some will say something like, ‘Well, you can pray for my father, or pray for me right now.’” Then he and Smullen would extend an invitation to visit St. Mary’s. Despite the possibility of facing rejection, Sherer participated because “I like asking for prayer intentions anyway.”
As Asama and Martinez walked around to a busier area downtown, Asama said he’d never been part of such a large-scale evangelization effort. “You should always be doing this stuff, but it’s a good event to get behind.”
Martinez said, “Being part of this event made me feel closer to God and spreading his word. I come from a very Catholic family, they like doing stuff like this. Now it’s my turn to get involved. This was a really nice opportunity.” Fluent in English and Spanish, she was able to break the ice with several Spanish-speaking groups. “The first group that wanted to write prayer intentions was a group of Hispanic guys.”
At the church, some people stayed for a minute or two, while others stayed for an hour or more. As they left, guests could write about what the experience meant to them. One person wrote about a wavering faith life and how the Nightfever experience proved to be a powerful reminder of God’s love. Another guest acknowledged feeling a fresh start in faith, thanks to Nightfever. Volunteers handed out lists of Mass times for local parishes.
After the event wrapped up, volunteers huddled to reflect on the evening. “Our street teams talked about how a lot of people either ignored them or even rejected them. Even when someone openly disagreed with them it was important to remember that God is in them as well,” Larraga Martinez said. “The most powerful stories were about people who opened up and asked for prayers, being vulnerable. Some people on the team felt comfortable enough to pray with them on the street, others wrote down the intentions and put them in the intentions box.”
Even when they told stories of experiencing rejection, the street teams conveyed a sense of joy in going out on the streets to evangelize. She noted that one volunteer, Stephen, told a story of a group of girls who took candles, not sure if they would come to the church. “When he came back to the church later that night, he saw one of the girls wipe a tear off her face as she left.”
By night’s end, Nightfever volunteers counted 86 tea candles surrounding the monstrance. At least that many people had come to pray throughout the evening. The team will send the written prayer requests to the Carmelites at their monastery in Eldridge.
Father Jeffry Belger, priest director of the Newman Center, expressed pride in the students for organizing the event and the time they devoted to it. He said he admired their mindset of “this is something we’re going to do and do it well.”
“Love for our Catholic faith permeated from each and every one of them. It was simply awe-inspiring,” said St. Mary Parish Youth Minister Patti McTaggart. “I am quite confident that the young people who organized and implemented this NightFever evening will be a blessing to any parish family someday – and I am excited for that parish family!”
-By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger