Sebastian Jamshahi is in a growing relationship with God, which he is able to share with the homeless on New York City’s streets through the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) at New York University’s Catholic Center in Manhattan.
“I’ve grown as a person during homeless outreach,” Jamshahi, an NYU sophomore and parishioner of Queen of Angels in Sunnyside, Queens, told CNY. “Mostly I’ve come to see the full life everyone lives. Now whenever I see somebody on the street, it’s a little easier for me to recognize they want to love somebody and they want to be loved. They want to have a relationship with someone else and with God as well.”
Jamshahi is one of about five NYU students, joined by two FOCUS missionaries, who encounter and assist the homeless in Manhattan one night each week through the FOCUS backyard missions’ initiative of serving their own community. He noted that they typically encounter three or four homeless people each evening, but said there have been nights they’ve interacted with no homeless people as well as other occasions with more than five.
One or two students will approach a homeless person to offer prayer, engage in conversation and ask if they need anything. The items, such as a sandwich, water or a pair of gloves, are purchased and brought back to the person.
“Our purpose as FOCUS missionaries is to get students to have an encounter with the Lord Jesus and His Church, an encounter that just doesn't last these four years at college but will last wherever the Lord takes them in parishes, maybe seminary or wherever it may be,” said Darin Howell, 25, a FOCUS missionary at NYU.
A FOCUS missionary is a young adult overseeing a campus outreach inviting students into a growing relationship with Jesus and the Catholic faith. FOCUS has more than 800 missionaries serving at more than 180 locations, including locations in New York at NYU, Columbia University, U.S. Military Academy and Stony Brook University.
“We want them to have deep encounters with the Lord Jesus that will affect them for a lifetime and spur them on to imitate us as missionaries who spur others to encounter Jesus,” Howell said.
FOCUS partnered with Lay Apostolic Ministries with the Poor (LAMP), which taught students how to approach and communicate with the poor and homeless.
LAMP is a Catholic adult ministry in the archdiocese whose mission is to share the love of Jesus with the poor, homeless, abandoned, sick, elderly or ignored.
Ed Greene, co-pastoral director of LAMP, praised the partnership with FOCUS and the work of the NYU students.
“I can’t say enough good things about them,” Greene said. “All of them are filled with the love and desire to be with the people. It means a lot to people to see these young people caring so much.”
Luis Gonzalez, an NYU freshman from Miami, said encountering and assisting the homeless has been an “amazing and life-changing” experience.
“When I first got here, I was dismayed and thinking to myself what can I do,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not right to just walk past these people on the street and pretend they’re not there. So at LAMP, they taught us how to interact with homeless people that is respectful but also in a way that fosters good conversation and prayer, which is something I was desiring.
“I never prayed with a homeless person in my life. It was so impactful to me because I felt I was ministering to Jesus Himself and I could see Jesus face to face. When I would look into the eyes of a homeless person, it was almost like the eyes of Jesus Himself.”
Father John Baptist Hoang, O.P., chaplain and director of NYU’s Catholic Center since 2018, told CNY, “It’s beautiful to see that they bring their faith out there as a community in service to the poor.” He shares a vision with the students and FOCUS missionaries as more students may return to campus for their studies in the 2021-2022 school year if the Covid-19 pandemic continues to subside.
“My hope and dream is that it’s not just one group going out to serve the homeless, it’ll be several groups,” he said.