Twenty-six-year-old Bronx native Kevin Donkor is a modern-day disciple. That’s not his official job title, but it could be.
Donkor is part of the growing collegiate outreach group known as FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). He serves as a missionary at Brown University in Providence, R.I., leading Bible studies and one-on-one discipleship, working in cooperation with the campus ministry team. He meets students where they are—literally and figuratively—whether that means talking and sharing a meal or a drink at a local restaurant, pub or coffeehouse or on campus.
The aim is to invite students to build a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
“We are there to help them grow on their journey and get zeal for their faith. Then they can go and find their friends and become leaders in their own right, not just in college, but beyond,” Donkor said.
One way that is done is by living the life he talks about. “We not only try to live our faith authentically, we try to share that with the students,” he said.
Donkor takes his faith seriously and is committed to sharing it with others. Born into a Methodist family, he converted to Catholicism after transferring to St. Raymond Elementary School in the Bronx in the fourth grade. As he grew older, his faith grew as well. He continued his Catholic education at Cardinal Hayes High School, the Bronx, and at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
When he graduated, he hoped to find a job in Manhattan, but God had different plans for him. “I was really focused on finding myself a career that promised to be as lucrative and prestigious as possible,” he said. “I wanted to show that all the hard work of my parents, who are immigrants from Ghana, was worth it.”
Through friends at New York University and Columbia University, Donkor was introduced to FOCUS missionaries. His life changed drastically after he attended SEEK in 2015, a five-day national conference in Nashville, Tenn., sponsored by FOCUS.
“SEEK was a big trigger for me. There was daily prayer and adoration, daily Mass, confession. People were having huge encounters with Christ and life-changing experiences,” he said, noting that nearly 10,000 young adults attended.
“Something inside of me said I needed to be a part of this,” he said.
Although the decision to become a missionary was clear to him from that point, it seemed out of the blue to some, including his family. “No one understood why I would do it,” he said—missionaries fund-raise their salary, may be transferred anywhere in the country and are asked to forego dating.
But he knew that this was something he had to do. “I work for an organization I believe in, and I do something that matters to me—helping people grow in their faith,” he said.
FOCUS began with two missionaries when Curtis Martin founded it in 1998 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
Today, FOCUS’ 550 full-time missionaries serve at 125 college campuses in 38 states. There are more than 20,000 alumni in the United States, and about 600 have pursued religious vocations. Missionaries came to NYU in 2009 and arrived at Columbia two years later.
In 2015, FOCUS hired a research firm to conduct a study on the organization’s effectiveness. Feedback was gathered from young adults aged 22-32 from two groups: FOCUS alumni and self-identified Catholic millennials.
“It was amazing to see the difference between FOCUS alumni and Catholic millennials,” said Nathan Stanley, director of the Northeast Region, which includes NYU and Columbia.
According to the study, 72 percent of FOCUS alumni said they “believe in sharing the good news” versus 23 percent of Catholic millennials. Also, 80 percent of FOCUS alumni said Catholic identity is an important part of their lives compared with 32 percent of Catholic millennials.
Stanley told CNY that missionaries serving on New York City campuses have their work cut out—students aren’t afraid to ask tough questions and material success is everywhere. To prepare for that, missionaries sent to the city are given extra training, particularly in Christian anthropology. “To bring people to Christ in this culture is a challenge,” Stanley said. He called the college years a “critical age” filled with freedom that many young adults never had before and with difficult life decisions about friends, careers and beliefs and morals.
“If you can make those decisions with God, it can change the trajectory of your life,” he said.
Ryan Noll, 25, is team director at NYU. When he met FOCUS missionaries at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., he was a practicing Catholic who attended Mass every Sunday. Still, there was something missing. “I wasn’t really sure what I believed,” he said. “FOCUS came at the right time and made me want to be a better Catholic.
“FOCUS missionaries are in a position that nobody else can really fulfill. We are at a peer level with the students and can relate to them and hang out with them. This is something so different. It’s so counter-cultural,” he said.
Juan Migone, 20, a junior at NYU majoring in urban design, first heard of FOCUS in high school in his hometown of Augusta, Ga. Knowing that FOCUS was at NYU was one reason he selected the school. “FOCUS and everything it provides has helped me grow in my faith in the most beautiful and unimaginable ways possible.
“With the environment of today’s college campuses I knew having people around me who were striving for virtue would keep me in check with my faith, but also with my career and relationships with others,” he said.
“Having FOCUS missionaries in NYC is perfect because they emphasize the importance of relationships: relationships with friends, dating relationships, and your relationship with Christ,” he said. “It’s so key in a city like this where relationships always come second to work or school.”
Anny Li, 19, a sophomore at NYU majoring in media, culture and communication, was introduced to FOCUS her first week at the university. “When I met the FOCUS missionaries as a freshman, I saw the beauty of living a life that is centered on Christ for the first time.
“The most important thing I learned from FOCUS is that we as young people have the gift and a call to share the gospel of our Lord to others,” she said. “That relationship I have with Jesus changes everything in my life.”