11/30/11 | 1819 views
FOCUS Missionaries at Columbia University Live Call to Evangelize
Some 2,000 years ago, Jesus walked with his disciples, living among the people—talking with them, eating meals with them, praying with them, sharing the Good News.
That same model of relational ministry is used by FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) on college campuses across the nation. This fall, three missioners began serving at Columbia University.
“We try to go about our ministry the way Jesus did. That’s why it works,” said Laura Scharmer, 23, one of Columbia’s FOCUS missioners. As FOCUS missioners, each young adult lives the life of a college student, building relationships and focusing on evangelization, with the goal of “reaching out to teach them to live as lifelong Catholics wherever they go.”
Curtis Martin and his wife, Michaelann, founded FOCUS in 1998 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. From that single college campus, FOCUS now has a presence at 58 campuses nationwide. A majority of the colleges and universities at which FOCUS is present are non-Catholic; however, the group works with the support of each school’s Catholic campus ministry. In addition to the team at Columbia, missionaries have been present at New York University since 2009.
In an interview with CNY in September, Martin noted that the young adults who serve are “missionaries, not just speakers,” and are dedicated to “bringing people to a relationship with Christ.” Much of the work is done one-on-one. He said he hopes that FOCUS presents a “Christ-centered vision for the students of Columbia” through an organized, zealous, vibrant Catholic presence there.
FOCUS is the largest Catholic collegiate outreach program; its missioners make a two-year commitment. It boasts an impressive record—more than 300 people have pursued religious vocations stemming from their involvement with FOCUS.
At Columbia, the three missioners work closely with Columbia University’s Catholic campus ministry. Father Daniel O’Reilly, director of campus ministry and director of the archdiocese’s University Apostolate, told CNY that the missioners “are out there drawing people in to the ministry, reaching people that the chaplains can’t.”
“They drum up business,” he said with a laugh. He explained that the missioners, who are young adults themselves, share the same concerns and life choices as the students, and serve as a positive example of dedicated, young Catholics.
He said, “They can really help in the personal, spiritual growth of the students.”
Before arriving, the missioners attended a five-week summer training course at the University of Illinois-Champaign in Scripture studies, apologetics, dogma and moral theology.
Ms. Scharmer, a graduate of Vanderbilt University with a degree in international development, first heard of FOCUS through a friend. That is often the case with missioners, as one-on-one relationships and word of mouth are crucial in how FOCUS carries out evangelization. Her own experience with FOCUS helped her dive deeper into her faith, she said. “Seeing the way they lived their lives was inspiring,” she said, particularly noting the joy and peace the missioners exuded.
“My experience with FOCUS changed my life and how I look at the world. It changed the way I lived. I learned I can live in a vibrant relationship with Christ,” she said. “It brought me such joy and hope and I want to bring that to others.”
Ms. Scharmer, who described herself as a shy person, said that becoming a missioner was not something she ever imagined. “For some reason, the Lord called me to be a missionary,” she said. What helps her to be effective in her ministry, she said, is realizing that each new person she meets is “a soul.”
“They might know Jesus, they might not,” she said. “We propose Jesus, we don’t want to impose on anyone.”
Leah Sedlacek, 25, is a graduate of The Catholic University of America with a degree in violin performance. During college, she realized how many young adults like her were “looking for a purpose or meaning in life.” A practicing Catholic, she said, “I was doing the things that Catholics do, asking myself, ‘What do I want to do?’ I wasn’t asking, ‘What does the Lord want me to do?’”
Ms. Sedlacek, a third-year missionary, is the team director of the Columbia missionaries. “What drew me to FOCUS was the person-to-person discipleship,” she said. “If you have somebody with you, side-by-side, running to Christ, all of a sudden it’s not impossible.”
Each FOCUS team member leads a small Bible study each week for students. They attend daily Mass, largely at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia. Working almost as foot soldiers, the missioners invite and encourage students to take part in the workshops and lectures held through the Catholic campus ministry at Columbia. They invite students to attend Mass with them. Most of all, they share the message of Jesus.
Ms. Sedlacek told CNY that oftentimes the ministry includes simple, daily activities like sharing meals and cups of coffee with students, walking or exercising together, and merely spending time together. “We form authentic friendships,” she said, noting that it is the gift of friendship that allows faith to take root and grow.
“The natural inclination of our faith is to share it,” she said.
Ms. Sedlacek noted that each campus has its own set of obstacles and advantages. For example, at Columbia, she said there is “a lot of relativism on campus.” On the flip side, she said, “The beautiful thing is, the students want to challenge us and they want to be challenged. If you can show them why a life with Jesus Christ is worth it, they will run and take the initiative and really live their life for him.”
She said, “The students ask so many questions. It’s awesome. They are really hungry to learn.”
Like the other missioners, Justin Petrisek, 22, a graduate of George Mason University who majored in creative writing, was deeply affected by his personal relationship with FOCUS. Witnessing FOCUS missioners, whom he described as “normal students who were joy-filled and happy” at George Mason, made him realize “they had something that I wanted.”
He was also drawn to the organization’s grassroots approach. “It may seem like we are not having such a large impact,” but he said it is important to focus on the larger picture. “When you realize you are doing that in unison with 58 other college campuses, with 300 other missionaries,” the effect each missioner can have becomes clearer, Petrisek said.
Drawing his point further, he noted that one-on-one ministry is what Jesus called his disciples to do. Petrisek referred to Peter, James and John, in particular, and noted that Jesus did not ask them to reach everyone at once. He convincingly said in light of that, “Why would we expect ourselves to reach 500 people right away?”
By working one-to-one and in small groups, people can begin to “see the beauty of an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ” and then go on to bring that to others. Calling it a “ripple effect,” he added, “That’s how his Church family is going to grow.”
One benefit of working on a small scale, he said, is that “it does allow you to really invest with those students who are responding.”
“The unique thing about Columbia is, you meet people from all over the world,” he said. He noted the great impact that Columbia graduates have had on the world, including positions of leadership in the political, economic and military fields, to name a few. “The Columbia students have a great desire to serve and to make a difference in the world.” He said he wants to show students, “That same calling is what Christ asks from us as well.”
“One thing we realized in New York is the high level of tolerance,” Petrisek said. Catholics can become “so ingrained with that mentality, we forget the Church was meant to evangelize,” he said.
“FOCUS helped me realize that call from Christ and his Church to evangelize with our very lives,” he said.
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