Brother Craig: Ecumenism by the Numbers

Posted: 4/16/2016

Brother Craig Digmann

By Frank Lesko,
Glenmary Director of
Catholic-Evangelical Relations

If you mention the name “Brother Craig” at stores, churches or sporting events in Union and Grainger counties in East Tennessee, the odds are high that someone will know him. “It’s unbelievable the impact Brother Craig is having here,” said Father Steve Pawelk, pastor of the counties’ two Glenmary missions and a fellow Glenmary mission team member.

Brother Craig Digmann is absolutely certain that he has a calling to be a Catholic presence in the area. An important aspect of this call are his visits to a large number of non-Catholic churches. 

To date, this Catholic brother has attended worship services at least once at more than 120 churches of various denominations all over the two-county area. He has been invited to still more. Furthermore, he has developed closer relationships with around two dozen congregations and pastors to the point where “it feels like family,” in his words.

He keeps meticulous records of the count, as well as information about future visits, pending invitations and items for follow-up. The numbers grow almost daily.

He estimates that there are 210 churches in these two counties. Many of them are very small faith communities virtually unknown to outsiders and comprised of just a few families. True to the Glenmary charism, Brother Craig has a special place in his heart for these small country churches. “That is really where my heart is,” he admitted. “The real lost and forgotten, the poorest of the poor—that’s where Glenmary goes.”

Brother Craig helped start the two area Glenmary missions in the summer of 2011. Forming new Catholic parishes was the first priority, and the task began with outreach to Catholics in the two counties. His ecumenical ministry evolved naturally from that effort, as his conversations and relationships quickly expanded beyond just Catholics. “It just snowballed,” he recalled. “I would invite people to our church, and they would invite me to theirs. It has continued to build and build.”

He spent a lot of time at first questioning whether to develop deep relationships with a few churches or casual relationships with many. The answer came as invitations started pouring in, and the ministry took on a life of its own.

Brother Craig is very intentional about his attitude and demeanor when visiting other churches. For better or worse, he knows that how he conducts himself is going to influence how people think of Catholics in general. He dresses well to show respect, but not too formally, which could be off-putting. He is polite and makes conversation easily. “I am probably the first Catholic to ever step foot in most of these places,” he said. “How I behave will impact how they perceive all Catholics to be.” 

If there is a time for visitors to introduce themselves during a worship service, he will explain who he is and what it means to be a Catholic consecrated brother. He shares about his family and asks for prayers. He may pray for the endemic drug problems in the region. And if the moment presents itself, he goes up front and sings the song Sanctuary, including a third verse he wrote.

“Most of what I do out in the community is education,” he said. In an area where few Catholics live and where myths and stereotypes abound, his simple presence can do much to break the ice. 

“The important thing is you just have to be present among the people. Most have never met a Catholic and have never been to a Catholic church,” he explained. “Suddenly, here is Brother Craig from the local Catholic church. I am a real person, and I try to be a nice guy. That’s huge. It is so important to be on their ground, especially if there is any chance of these individuals coming to ours.” 

Having more people visit a Catholic Mass is one of his “greatest goals.” Initially, area residents hesitated to attend Mass, but over the years they have started to check it out. His outreach also paves the way for improving participation in the two counties’ ecumenical events. 

Brother Craig is a master community builder. He makes connections with a cook at a local restaurant, with the manager at a hardware store, and with other people in chance encounters during the course of daily life. He is involved in the community as an athletic coach and a mentor. He regularly walks with neighbors during times of grief and discernment.

Through relationships and his friendly presence, he is an ambassador of the Catholic Church in rural East Tennessee. 

Brother Craig is the first to say that this ministry is unique. “Nobody is going to do this like I do,” he conceded, with some resignation. 

Indeed, the numbers are daunting. It might be easy to dismiss because of that fact. Yet, looking beyond numbers, any person of goodwill can learn much from Brother Craig’s example. His ministry can teach us all about how to be present to people and be a witness of the faith. 

Most of us will not visit dozens of different churches, but it is actually not about the numbers at all: the same approach can be applied when visiting a single church or when talking to people from different denominations at work or in social settings. 

“Anyone can do this,” said Brother Craig. “You just start talking to people.”

This story first appeared in the April 2016 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.