Probable headstone: Only God could write a story this surprising.
Hello, my name is Susan Windley-Daoust, and I am the person behind the Creative Evangelization website. Thanks for being here!
A little bit about me: I am a cradle Catholic, and I was raised in the American South, surrounded by Southern Baptists. This means I was explaining why I was Catholic since I was knee high to the proverbial porch swing. Life puttered along and I went to Mary Washington College, where I accidentally (yes) signed up for a religious studies course titled Introduction to Christian Theology. I fell head over heels in love with the subject almost immediately, and within six weeks, had decided I needed to get a doctorate in Theology. And so I did, at Vanderbilt University. I wanted to teach Catholic theology, and was blessed to do so, first at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. I met my future husband, Jerry, and fell head over heels in love again. We married, and soon moved our growing family to small town Winona, Minnesota. I was hired as an assistant professor at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.
It was then I made a decision that unknowingly set the dominoes falling toward my future.
When I started at Saint Mary’s, I crafted a general education course called “Christian View of the Human Person.” Almost on a whim, I assigned students a closing “spiritual autobiography,” about 6-8 pages where they would show me they understand the terms by applying them to their life story. I didn’t know their life stories were about to change mine.
Students poured their hearts out to me for 17 years. Some, faithful. Some, seekers. Some, from other religions. A few, atheist. But a real change happened over those 17 years (2001-2018). As a group, they went from being largely Christian, perhaps confused but ultimately hopeful that God was, and would continue to be, a reality in their lives—to a group that was largely hopeless, didn’t see God as powerful reality in their lives, and moving away from belonging to any Church. At the same time, I saw a dramatic rise in reported mental illness—especially anxiety and depression. The sadness was palpable and accepted as normal. I saw this happen before I read the statistics bearing this out—and I was increasingly sad and horrified.
About three years ago, I was reading these listless autobiographies and finally pushed my chair away from the table and started to pray. “What is going on, Lord?” Suddenly, I received this image of the beaten up man from the Good Samaritan story, lying half-dead. Then I heard: “You’re just passing him by, bleeding on the side of the road.” Somewhat shocked, I said “But…no I’m not. I’m teaching them the way, right? They know the path. I keep saying I am open to talking with them about this…. I don’t get why they can’t move themselves 100 yards into the Chapel on campus.” And after half a beat, received: They’re far too wounded to get there on their own. I remember staring at nothing in shock. I had nothing to say to that, since I had read the evidence for 17 years.
Those dominoes began to fall very fast, and I decided to leave my tenured department chair position to do evangelization, to do a ministry that “carries the wounded to their Healer, Jesus Christ.” There’s nothing wrong with teaching, and I loved it. But it was clear God was calling me to propose encounter with Christ more directly. After making the decision to leave teaching (but not entirely sure what would come next), I was offered the position to be the Director of Missionary Discipleship for my home diocese, Winona-Rochester. God is so good.
Since then, I’ve been able to bring my seemingly scattered life experiences (family life, teaching, administration, offering spiritual direction, helping run a Catholic Worker community, working with ex-offenders) into focus with the needs of the people of Southern Minnesota, and a vision of the evangelizing Church so beautifully articulated by our recent popes. Half of my work focuses on helping parishes re-center on the Great Commission, and how vision and mission shape our values, actions, and internal culture. I help parishes consider and implement different models and processes in Missionary Discipleship. The other half of my work focuses on launching and supporting diocesan initiatives that do deliberate outreach to the wounded in Southern Minnesota. In the process, we’re building communities of evangelists, person by person, calling upon the help of the Holy Spirit. Evangelization is a real and genuine mercy in my life, and an abiding joy.
What I’m doing here
Creative Evangelization is a humble outreach outside of my diocesan work, focusing on writing and resources. However, this is also an appropriate place to request information about speaking, parish mission work, facilitating parish/council/staff discussions, and short-term consulting. (Friends in the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, I do all this for free on request!) Outside of my diocese, I accept based on my schedule outside of primary work hours. But first conversations are always free. The most important thing is that we move forward, in hope, with faith, together to the Lord. There is work to do! Let’s get at it!
Some smart missionary disciples and mission-forward organizations/communities from whom I have learned—not at all exhaustive, and in no particular order:
Alpha in a Catholic Context, ChristLife, Sherry Weddell and the Catherine of Siena Institute, FOCUS, Dcn. Keith Strohm’s M3 Ministries, Parish Success Group, Franciscan Outreach (especially Discipleship Quads), Saint Paul’s Outreach, Saint Paul Evangelization Institute, Julianne Stanz, Burning Hearts Disciples, Marcel LeJeune’s Catholic Missionary Disciples, Revive Parishes, Tim Glemkowski, Renewal Ministries, Encounter Ministries, Wild Goose Ministries, Word on Fire, Fr. James Mallon’s Divine Renovation Ministries, Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilt, The Amazing Parish, Jennifer Fitz, everything from Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, and John Boucher.
I should add: I learn just as much, if not more, from the way God works in my family, close friends, and so many phenomenal Catholic Christians I know within the Diocese of Winona-Rochester. I gain something from every conversation. The Holy Spirit is afoot in Southern Minnesota. I am grateful.