Diverse discipleship: Debbie Veitenheimer and the students of Midwestern State University
Walk into the Catholic Campus Center adjacent to Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls on a given Friday afternoon and, odds are, you’ll find Debbie Veitenheimer and students of several different cultures singing the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
After more than 20 years as the director of the Catholic Campus Ministry at MSU, Veitenheimer is no stranger to that diversity and hasn’t lost sight of the personal touch that is key to discipleship. Recently, Veitenheimer reflected on her time sharing the Gospel with students from different nations.
“This cradle Catholic who knew very little has grown into a woman of faith who begins every day knowing it is His, not mine,” said Veitenheimer of her faith journey. “I did pursue a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from the University of Dallas along the way. But my classroom has been a formal one as well as a large informal classroom where the students are my teachers.”
One of the biggest lessons both Veitenheimer and her students have learned over the years is about the diversity — and similarities — found in the universal Church. For instance, more than 20 years ago, the students at the Catholic Campus Center were predominantly from the Caribbean Islands. Now flags from 20 countries adorn the CCC ceiling, representing the diversity of all the students who have walked through those doors over the years.
“Today, it is a huge melting pot of students from multiple countries and cultures,” Veitenheimer said. “Some days I will hear two or three different languages [besides English] spoken there. I am grateful that students from other countries who come to MSU find a home at the CCC. They are so far away from family and need that comfort and connection. Learning what it is to be a Catholic in other countries is so intriguing to me.”
Veitenheimer could fill a book with the stories of diversity, friendship, and faith that she has witnessed over the years. One of her favorites involved the CCC’s ministry with Guatemala, which began when she took a missionary team there with the former pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Wichita Falls, Father Jack McKone, in 2014.
A few years later, on a Sunday after Mass in July, one of her students said he met a new student at MSU from Guatemala and brought him to Mass. Veitenheimer met the student, Rodrigo, and found out he had a family business near the region where the CCC students had traveled for their Guatemalan mission trips.
“Rodrigo quickly became a part of our CCC family. He came to MSU to perfect his English, but he stayed because of the community he found at the CCC,” Veitenheimer said. “The next summer he traveled with us to Guatemala for our mission trip. His family met us at the airport and his grandmother invited us into her home for lunch. She showed love to each of us as if we were her own.” Later that week, Rodrigo’s family invited the travelers to dinner at the family restaurant. “They treated us all to the best evening of delicious food and wonderful hospitality. The universal Church was so very evident in all of that experience,” she said.
Veitenheimer said it’s important to her that everyone who walks through the doors of the CCC is met where they are and yet encouraged to grow in depth, breadth, and understanding alongside others.
“The feeling of belonging to a community that is grounded in faith really allows students the courage to explore their faith and know that no question is off limits,” she said. “The conversations I am privy to among the students are fascinating. Because students are from small towns, large cities, Texas, out of state, and out of the country, their unity comes in their desire to pursue Christ and grow their faith while in college.”
Jeff Hedglen, director of the University Catholic Community at UT Arlington, said, “Debbie’s wide-open heart makes it easy for her to welcome students from all walks of life…She beautifully brings together the gifts of spirituality, pastoral care, and motherhood to welcome, guide, and nurture students from various backgrounds.”
Hedglen continued, “These qualities set the stage for students to encounter Christ in the sacraments and community life offered in the campus ministry setting.”
Veitenheimer’s background was in higher education and although she knew she wanted to work with college students outside the classroom when she started working at MSU more than 20 years ago, she wasn’t looking for a career in ministry at the time. While she was working at MSU in student development, the former MSU Catholic campus minister approached her about working part time with students in a faith capacity.
“It was as if God hit me over the head and said, ‘This is what I have been calling you to!’ I was truly shocked to feel the tug to apply for the job. I applied, and here I am, over 20 years later,” she said.
Veitenheimer said her Catholic faith has grown as she has worked alongside amazing young adults.
“I have grown an intimacy with Christ that I never knew possible. I have grown a solid prayer life. I have laughed and cried with students. I have taught, and I have been taught,” she said. “I have experienced so many different cultures from a lens of faith. I have seen Christ in the flesh right in front of me. I have hope for the future because of the college students who bless me with their presence, their curiosity, their passion, their authenticity, and their trust.”