Spiritual Multipliers: FOCUS missionaries practice peer-to-peer discipleship on Denton campuses
DENTON — Although the method dates back 2,000 years, it still works. For seven years, FOCUS missionaries at the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University have modeled the method of the Master — investing time in individuals to create missionary disciples.
For example, take Maria Diaz. The St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishioner admitted to being a “lukewarm” Catholic when she arrived at UNT her freshman year. Her best intention to participate at St. John Paul II University Parish fell by the wayside.
The next semester, a FOCUS missionary invited her to join a Bible study. A friendship developed, with frequent conversations and advice on growing deeper in a relationship with Christ.
By her junior year, Diaz was leading a Bible study. She recalled, “I loved working with the girls, proclaiming the word of Christ, and seeing their faces light up with joy. I could see their faith progress and the Holy Spirit impact their lives in a positive way.”
Now, the former “lukewarm” Catholic is on fire for her faith. Diaz is currently training to become a FOCUS missionary and will be assigned to a campus in August.
“I hope to be able to share the joy and peace that Christ has brought into my life. I want Christ to use me as an instrument, to let the Holy Spirit work through me and bring other souls home to Christ,” said the 2018 UNT grad.
The seven FOCUS missionaries at UNT hit the ground running at the beginning of each academic year. Last August, missionary Anna Fernandez spotted a young lady sitting by herself at lunch and asked if she could join her.
The missionaries call the technique “barehanding” — approaching a person with nothing in your hands and asking a few icebreaker questions to begin a conversation. If the individual is interested, the missionary invites him or her to a Bible study or community night at St. John Paul II Parish, located just off campus.
In this case, the solo diner accepted Fernandez’ invitation. Fast forward several months, and the young lady is leading a Bible study with eight others. Fernandez prays that through their lunchtime meeting, this student has become a lifelong missionary disciple of Jesus.
Barehanding can be scary and opens the missionaries to the likelihood of rejection. “But Christ is rejected all the time, and if we’re truly desiring to be disciples of Christ, we need to be ready to accept the same kinds of treatment that He did,” said Fernandez, a graduate of Baylor University.
The seven missionaries practice spiritual multiplication at the two Denton campuses, just as their colleagues do at 152 other college campuses across 42 U.S. states.
Jenny Lynn Pelzel, campus minister of St. John Paul II University Parish, said the FOCUS mission greatly extends the reach to Denton students.
Some students arrive at college intent on growing in faith, and they seek out the campus ministry’s Masses, retreats, and activities. But for the majority of students who are on the fence, outreach from the missionaries draws students into the Catholic community, Pelzel has observed.
The relationship between the campus ministry and FOCUS missionaries is very complementary, according to Pelzel. Being on campus daily, the missionaries are able to cast a wide net to find students seeking a deeper relationship with Christ and then walk alongside those students for months or even years. Then, the missionaries encourage their disciples to lead a Bible study among their friends.
Although Pelzel builds relationships with many of the 160 or so students who frequent campus ministry, she is often occupied with planning retreats, coordinating weekly community nights, and arranging liturgies and meals. She explained FOCUS missionaries are “able to walk with students and invest in them personally. Relational ministry takes so much time, to invest in students to teach them how to make disciples.”
Pelzel continued, “It’s not just [the FOCUS missionary] walking with a particular student and teaching them to pray, teaching them the faith, living life with them. That person then, in turn, needs to make a disciple, and teach them to pray, and teach them the faith.
“If our faith is just about us, it’s not going to be fruitful. Our life is meant to image the life of God and, like the Trinity, it’s creative. Life overflows from that, and so if our Catholic life isn’t overflowing into other people, it’s really sterile.”
A CRITICAL TIME
According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, if a Catholic stops practicing the faith, there’s a 79 percent likelihood it will be before the age of 23.
Away from home for the first time, college students must choose whether they want the faith for themselves amid a culture that devalues religion. Jordan Gardenhire, who grew up at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Lewisville and is now a FOCUS missionary at Kansas State University, calls it “the biggest decision” of their lives.
Faith must be well-formed before they finish college, because “these will be the next parents who will form their children. These will be the business leaders and professionals [to] impact generations to come,” she explained.
Denton missionary Conrad Collins agreed. “Your time in college is where you really shape the virtues or the vices that shape who you are. College is where you form a lot of habits.”
Furthermore, he said, college years are a time of vulnerability, numerous changes, and growing independence. “If your relationship with God is not something that is practiced in this time, it can get lost in the struggle to figure yourself out,” said the graduate of the University of Mississippi.
Also, anxiety, depression, and loneliness are prevalent during college years. Jeannette Hanon, a Nicaragua native with a special outreach to Hispanic women at UNT, said, “A lot of the women that I’ve worked with feel like they don’t have a community or someone they can reach out to.”
FOCUS (an acronym for Fellowship of Catholic University Students) began in 1998 with two missionaries on one campus: Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. In 20 years it has grown to more than 700 missionaries, all recent grads who make an initial two-year commitment to evangelize their peers on college campuses. Missionaries seek the spiritual and financial support of mission partners.
Can a handful of missionaries make an impact on a campus with tens of thousands of students?
The numbers look positive. More than 17,000 college students attended the annual FOCUS conference, held earlier this year in Indianapolis. More than 725 previous FOCUS missionaries have decided to pursue a Catholic religious vocation. And by 2022, FOCUS expects that 75,000 students discipled by FOCUS missionaries will have transitioned into parishes across the U.S.
“We are a response to the New Evangelization,” said Hanon, referring to the call from St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to re-propose the Gospel to a secularized culture.
As Hanon’s three years of missionary service come to a close, she reflected on an important lesson — the urgency of the mission. “If I don’t go out to reach my brothers and sisters, then who will do it?” she asked. “Everyone needs to know they are made for heaven; they are made for love and relationships; they are daughters and sons of God. Rejoice and be glad!”
Diaz, the missionary in training, has weighed the cost of discipleship. As she prepares for FOCUS service, she understands her campus assignment will take her outside the Diocese of Fort Worth, living farther from her family and friends than she ever has lived. She knows her personal time will be sacrificed as she pours her faith into others.
But she’s ready. “If I really, truly live for others, I must die to myself and give up what I want to do to help another person,” she said. “My joy is overflowing. I want to share it with others.”