FOCUS missionaries: the boots on the ground

By Elizabeth Starr
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — On Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. during the academic year at the University of Iowa, about 40 students leave their dorms or apartments and gather at the Newman Catholic Student Center for an hour of eucharistic adoration. Afterward, many students hang around to chat. A few new missionaries are in the crowd, talking, before one of them asks, “Do you want to go to Perkins’?”

Contributed
FOCUS missionaries, clockwise, from bottom, Sarah McQuade, Monica Mackie, Alan Goodenberger and Devin Dunn pose for a photo last fall during a Newman Catholic Student Center retreat.

Students and staff have noticed a growth in student turnout at Newman Center events and a more welcoming community after FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) came to campus. They say it has sparked energy in the Newman Center.

FOCUS arrived on campus for the first time during the 2018-2019 academic year. The five missionaries, all recent college graduates, provided outreach to students and led Bible studies. They also mentored students and accompanied around 40 of them to FOCUS’ SEEK 2019 conference in Indianapolis this past January.

UI junior Thomas Asama, a student discipled by the missionaries, noticed an increase in student turnout at weekly prayer events, specifically eucharistic adoration. Students brought back adoration as a weekly activity after a multiple-year hiatus due to low numbers. This past year, 30 to 40 students regularly came to adoration and stayed the full hour.

“The biggest thing is fostering authentic friendships,” Asama said. “Some of the most fun I had this year was after adoration; we would go out and eat pancakes.”

Christine Wissink, director of Outreach and Education at the Newman Center, said she enjoyed having the FOCUS missionaries on campus. She has seen a more positive atmosphere and more students going deeper in prayer, participating in sacraments, understanding Scripture and forming community.

The missionaries “can go where the students are in a much more natural way than we can,” Wissink said. They can reach out in ways that the staff can’t. “They bring a new energy and prayerfulness. They are really the boots on the ground for us.”

Father Jeff Belger, priest director at the Newman Center, said the missionaries at Iowa connected with campus culture, but they also offered something different that students found desirable. That something, he said, was developing a deeper relationship with Christ.

“I’ve been proud to work with them,” Fr. Belger said. “They have challenged me in ways that help me grow.” One example: every morning the missionaries celebrated holy hour at 8 a.m., an earlier time for prayer than he was used to.

The Newman Center had considered bringing FOCUS missionaries to campus for at least two years and finally did so after fundraising the year before. The center had five missionaries this year: Alan Goodenberger, Monica Mackie and Devin Dunn for the full year, Sarah McQuade in the fall semester and Aurelia Isenbart in the spring semester.

They said the campus was very welcoming and they noted how eager the students were to be guided in faith and how deeply they desired a relationship with Christ.

Each missionary said they saw Christ in the relationships they developed with students over the past year. Mackie and Dunn said they grew closer to students during mission trips. Isenbart and Good­enberger said they built relationships with students through everyday conversations while playing basketball or just chatting late at night.

“Jesus is working in the church, and he’s working at Iowa,” Isenbart said. “It’s exciting to be a part of.”

Wissink said that some Newman staff had concerns about how FOCUS would fit in with the already existing ministry. Dunn said it was nerve-racking to go into a school that has never had FOCUS missionaries. However, he found that FOCUS fit right in with the Newman Center ministry.

During the past academic year, FOCUS and EC (Evangelical Catholic, another organization) partnered up to provide their services to the Iowa campus.

FOCUS provided missionaries and EC provided consultants and training programs for the Newman Center full-time staff. They also combined the costs, with the Newman Center paying about $60,000 for the academic year. The cost was covered through donations, fundraising and the budget.

FOCUS, founded in 1998, invites college students into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and his church, inspiring and equipping them for a lifetime of Christ-centered evangelization, discipleship and friendships, according to Leslie Prevish of the FOCUS Media Relations team.
She said that during the 2018–2019 academic year, nearly 700 missionaries served full-time on 153 college campuses across 42 U.S. states and five international locations.

To learn more about FOCUS, visit www.focus.org

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