Millennial helps Catholics become missionary disciples

Rachel Van Handel, a witness trainer for Spiritus ministries, offers tips for people to share their faith

ONEIDA — “Disciples on the Way,” the six-year diocesan journey of prayer, preaching, teaching and growing in faith, introduced by Bishop David Ricken in 2014, entered Phase III in 2018. The theme for this third and final two-year phase is “Formation in Mission,” which includes a call to grow as missionaries by increasing discipleship to others.

One way to ramp up the call to missionary discipleship is to share your story, and Rachel Van Handel is helping Catholics throughout the diocese learn how.

Rachel Van Handel, pictured in the commons area of the Mount Tabor Center in Menasha, serves as a witness trainer and grant writer for Spiritus, a ministry of Mount Tabor Center. She leads a witness training program to parishes and schools titled, “Be My Witnesses: Equipping Catholics to Share the Gospel.” (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

Van Handel, a member of the Spiritus ministry team from 2012 to 2015, now serves Spiritus as a witness trainer and grant writer. She offers witness training to parishes and schools through her program “Be My Witnesses: Equipping Catholics to Share the Gospel.”

“I was trained when I was on the Spiritus team on how to witness and spent three years giving hundreds of witnesses,” said Van Handel, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who earned a master’s in theology from Augustine Institute. “In the diocese, we spend a lot time with prayer, learning our story and developing this relationship with Jesus. Now what do we do with it? Go out and share it.”

Van Handel provides practical tips about sharing a personal faith witness and also tries to empower people.

“Your story matters. Your story needs to be told because God speaks to you and loves you in a way that is unique to you,” she said. “People need to hear it.”

Catechists from St. Joseph Parish, Oneida, participated in witness training on Jan. 10. To explain the meaning of witnessing, Van Handel compared it to a witness in a courtroom.

“In a criminal case they are testifying to their experience, what they have seen, what they have heard,” she said. “That’s kind of what we do with our faith. Essentially, witness is the words, actions and way of life of an individual.

“It’s about sharing what Jesus has done in our lives with other people,” she added.

Why should we witness?

“We as humans are naturally drawn to stories,” said Van Handel, an Appleton native. “You hear someone give a talk and you are really captivated. Then someone asks you what it was about and all you remember is a story the person told. When we share stories, when we share a part of our lives, people listen.”

Van Handel said people are eager to share their favorite movie, television show, book or song, but why not their faith?

“When you talk about them, you want other people to watch them or read them,” she said. “When we have this experience where this movie made me laugh so much, we want you to watch it so you can laugh. How much more so should we share our faith, which is so much more essential to our lives? We experienced peace, God’s love; it should not only be our duty to share it, but our joy.”

Hope is another reason to witness. The world is “hungering for authentic stories of hope,” said Van Handel.

A good starting point to share your story is to ask the Holy Spirit how God has worked in your life.

“Those huge, dramatic moments come to mind, but also the everyday moments in your life,” said Van Handel. “Those stories need to be told.”

Van Handel, a second grade catechist at St. Paul Parish, Combined Locks, shared a personal story with the St. Joseph catechists about the Holy Spirit at work in her life. She recalled a day when she kept hearing a particular song everywhere.

“It was God bombarding me with this song,” she said. “It was God’s way of telling me he loves me.”

Van Handel provided a “witness outline” with practical tips:

  • Identify with where your listeners are at by expressing your commonalities.
  • Share how your encounter with God, church or believers changed you.
  • Encourage your listeners to live out the Gospel, follow specific teaching, respond to Jesus and/or strive for holiness by naming concrete ways to do this.

Once a connection is made, the second step is telling your story, she explained. The third step is to call the listener to do something. Van Handel encouraged the catechists to open with God moments each week with their students.

“Share a way you saw God this last week. Maybe they found God when a friend gave them a hug during a difficult time. Week after week, students will open their eyes. They will now be looking at how God is working in their lives,” said Van Handel. “Bring your own stories because that’s what they are going to remember, and give them opportunities to witness.”

Van Handel offers 45-minute and 60-minute training sessions and on-the-spot assistance in creating a personalized witness talk. Groups may choose from 10 different witness topics for training. To schedule a date or for more information, contact Van Handel at (920) 722-8918 or [email protected] ministries.org.