By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — For the past three years, teams of FOCUS missionaries have been helping students at the University of Iowa to embrace the Catholic faith.
These missionaries “have greatly helped us in outreach on campus and in forming students in discipleship,” said Christine Wissink, director of outreach and education for Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa. “Our goal is to work in unity with each other to strengthen our ministry. We each have different roles but the same end goal in mind.”
Citing positive experiences with FOCUS missionaries on campus, seven University of Iowa alumni are now serving as FOCUS missionaries themselves at universities across the country.
What is a FOCUS missionary?
FOCUS is a Catholic collegiate outreach whose mission is to share the hope and joy of the Gospel with college and university students. Each year, approximately 800 FOCUS missionaries are sent in teams to serve at 180 college campuses at the invitation of the local bishop and with the support of the local campus ministry.
At the University of Iowa, these missionaries lead Bible studies and walk with students in intentional discipleship relationships, Wissink said. They also help students learn how to pray and to make sacraments a daily part of their lives. The missionaries work closely with Newman Center staff to achieve common goals. “It’s really beautiful to see the growth in numbers and depth of the students’ faith over the last few years. We have more guys participating in (Newman Center) programs, our prayer activities have grown, daily Mass attendance has grown and students are intentionally doing things like encountering the homeless on the streets and forming relationships with them.”
A huge benefit of having FOCUS missionaries on campus is that they can “walk with students in a more intentional and personal way than we as a staff can because they are closer to the college students’ age,” Wissink said.
FOCUS missionaries, once accepted into the program, commit to at least two years of service. All first- and second-year missionaries go through two-and-a-half weeks of training, engaging in human, spiritual, intellectual and apostolic formation. They learn about methods of prayer, fundraising, outreach and evangelization. Missionaries do not choose their own assignments; they may be sent to any campus with a FOCUS program.
Students enter the ministry
Last year, alumni Thomas Asama and Karissa (Fjeldheim) Dunn applied to become FOCUS missionaries and were accepted into the program.
Dunn, a Sioux City native, felt a deep calling to the ministry as she entered her senior year at Iowa. Jesus “knew that this would fulfill my desire to be close to him, and bring true happiness and joy into my next steps… I was just so excited at the prospect of spreading the Gospel on any college campus.”
She served at the University of Iowa last fall as she finished her education degree. She was able to continue working with a couple of women on campus to help draw them into relationship with Jesus, Dunn said. “I led a Bible study, and attended Newman Center events and FOCUS events. She was a little more “hands off” than a full-time missionary, “but I still participated as much as I could, and still had an awesome relationship with my team.”
Dunn moved to the University of Cincinnati in Ohio this past spring, following graduation, and looks forward to returning in the fall so she can continue building relationships there. “I started to meet women and invite them to Bible study, I started meeting with women one on one, and got to integrate into University of Cincinnati’s Catholic community.”
Five more University of Iowa alumni are set to start in the ministry this fall: Olivia Ahlberg, Peter Laubenthal, Lucero Manzanares, Camryn Miller and Julia Waters.
Ahlberg, a 2021 Iowa graduate and a DeWitt native, will serve at the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall. She sees college as a “make it or break it” moment for many young Catholics, and knows first-hand the kind of impact FOCUS missionaries can have on students. The missionaries at Iowa “showed me how to integrate my relationship with the Lord into my everyday life. They taught me how to pray and showed me how to live an abundant, free life with the Lord.” As a FOCUS missionary, Ahlberg hopes to make a similar impact. “I want everyone on the earth to know and fall in love with Jesus’ heart,” she said.
Recent Iowa graduate Miller credits FOCUS missionaries for shaping her college experience and setting her up for a lifetime of faith. “I was being pulled in many directions and was trying to figure out what would fill the hole in my heart that is meant for Jesus.
They modeled what a Christ-centered life looks like, day in and day out.” She believes the FOCUS program “truly cares about each human soul involved in the apostolate, which is made clear by the number of prayers that are offered for students, mission partners and staff each day. I am confident in the model of evangelization that we follow as FOCUS missionaries, because it is modeled after our savior himself.” She looks forward to serving at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Laubenthal, a Davenport native and Assumption High School (Davenport) graduate, feels blessed by the opportunity to walk in faith with young men at Miami University of Ohio this fall. At the University of Iowa, FOCUS missionaries “called me to be more deeply convicted in my faith, whether that be in the way I acted, treated others or how I made big decisions in my life.”
Waters, a Minnesota native, said the missionaries at Iowa “challenged me to live out my identity completely as a daughter of Christ and showed me what that meant and how I could practically do it. They shared life with me and made me feel known, they taught me how to pray and how to lead others in prayer, but most importantly they shared the love of Christ with me in all that they did.” She looks forward to seeing what God has in store for her as a missionary at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “I am most looking forward to … meeting the people I know he has intentionally placed for me to meet and grow in friendship with.”