FOCUS mission begins with simple invitation
September 6, 2019
Their calls to missionary discipleship began with simple, but personal, invitations.
For each of them, these invitations came in various forms – a note taped to a dorm room door, a peer’s suggestions to come to Newman Center events, a friend’s encouragement to join a Bible study, even a stranger who was willing to listen during a time of pain and vulnerability.
These are the stories of four Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries from the Archdiocese of Omaha, all of whom received their call to serve as missionaries during their own formation in the FOCUS program as undergraduate students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).
“It wasn’t so much that the FOCUS program interested me as the FOCUS program took an interest in me, and that’s really how I came to be involved,” said University of South Dakota missionary Rob Cargill. The summer before his freshman year of college, Cargill received an invitation from an older UNL student from his parish, St. Columbkille in Papillion, to join a FOCUS Bible study. He was reluctant at first, but decided to give it a try.
As he spent more time around the students and missionaries in FOCUS, Cargill began to experience a peace and joy that he couldn’t find anywhere else, he said. Gradually, he recognized that it was the power of their prayer that set these students apart.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen in my life, and I wasn’t sure what could make me happy, but these people seemed happy. So I gave my life to God and I surrendered to him,” said Cargill. Then he prayed a prayer his mother had taught him to pray when he was younger: “‘Lord, I’ll go wherever you want me to go, I’ll do whatever you want me to do, I’ll give up whatever you want me to give up and I’ll say whatever you want me to say.’
“When I had my reversion to my faith, I prayed that prayer and I really meant it for the first time, so I made that promise to God that when he called, I would answer,” Cargill said.
This simple, yet personal invitation to grow in relationship with the Lord demonstrates divine intimacy, one of FOCUS’ three key habits of missionary discipleship, said Katherine Nordhues, former missionary and current member of FOCUS’ recruitment team.
The others are authentic friendship, which centers around developing virtuous relationships, and a commitment to spiritual multiplication: investing in the few to reach the many, she said.
FOCUS’ model of spiritual multiplication is not an original concept, but one that is drawn directly from the teachings of Christ, said Nordhues. Jesus invested in the few to reach the many; first he called “Peter, James and John, the three, and then the 12, then the 72 and then the 5,000,” she said.
The three habits imply that FOCUS missionaries must model their ministry after that of Jesus.
“The more I pay attention to the ministry of Jesus, I notice that it’s not too often that he’s inviting people into the synagogue; he’s often going out to meet them,” said Drake University missionary Cody Fischer, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Hartington.
For instance, when Jesus wants to encounter Peter and Andrew, he does not try to bring them into the synagogue but instead goes out to them on the fishing boats, Fischer said.
When he wants to encounter Matthew, he goes to the tax collector’s booth and when he encounters Bartimaeus, he’s on the road. In the same way, FOCUS missionaries go to college campuses and meet students on their turf, Fischer said.
In his four years as a FOCUS missionary, Fischer has forged friendships with students at different stages of their faith.
“I’ve gotten to meet students who are practicing Catholics, non-practicing Catholics, Protestants who have ended up coming to Bible studies,” he said. “I’ve gotten to meet different Muslim students from Qatar or Egypt who have actually ended up, as a result of some of those interactions, coming to the events at the Newman Center or to daily Masses.”
As a FOCUS missionary, Fischer has learned to reach out to students wherever they are – on the soccer field, in the dining hall or at the local coffee shop. The summer before his third year as a missionary, he felt a stirring in his heart to join West Virginia University’s Quidditch team.
Quidditch is a fictional sport from the popular Harry Potter book series. The objective is to throw the main ball, the quaffle, through one of three large hoops as players “fly around” on broomsticks.
In the fall, Fischer began practicing with the team and soon after started to recognize a familiar face from the Quidditch pitch at Sunday Mass. He approached the young man, greeted him, and the two exchanged contact information.
From there a genuine friendship developed. Fischer later discovered that it was because this student, Danny, had recognized him, both as a FOCUS missionary and as a member of the Quidditch team, that he stopped sporadically skipping Mass and decided to return to attending on a regular basis.
A SIMPLE INVITATION
For FOCUS missionaries like Fischer, extending an honest gesture of friendship can be all it takes to lead someone back to the Lord. In some instances, students who once felt lost are even inspired to continue sharing their renewed gift of faith with others, leading to spiritual multiplication.
During his freshman year of college at UNL, missionary T.J. Engelkamp, a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha, occasionally attended Sunday Mass for his parents’ sake, but otherwise did not pursue the faith. He was in an unhealthy relationship from high school that had resulted in a painful breakup, leaving him feeling broken and alone.
After receiving a suggestion from one of his friends, a student leader from FOCUS invited Engelkamp to get out of his dorm. “Of course she didn’t invite me straight to the Catholic Church because she knew I had been away. I was considering leaving. I was pretty indifferent to my faith,” he said.
That student leader, Lizzie, invited him to join her, along with a group of students from the Newman Center, to play board games at Hurt’s Donuts in Lincoln. Engelkamp admitted he was surprised at how joyful and carefree these individuals were, unlike any other group of college students he had met.
After spending time together, Lizzie, who had known about his breakup, asked Engelkamp to share what was on his mind and heart. She genuinely listened and then invited him back to church to experience the healing sacrament of reconciliation.
“She just walked with me and didn’t really take a stance or anything,” said Engelkamp. “It meant a lot to me that she listened so well, and after that she had earned the right to make a suggestion like that,” he said.
He made the decision to go to the Newman Center for confession. He had been away from the church since the fall of his senior year of high school and it was difficult, but that day in the confessional, Engelkamp said he felt the arms of God the Father wrapped around him for the first time.
“Without Lizzie being missionary-minded and sensing the fact that I was kind of a lost soul, I don’t know where I would be in college,” he said.
Through the formation he received during his own college experience with FOCUS, Engelkamp eventually said yes to a missionary vocation in hopes of reaching students just like him. He will be serving at Northern Arizona University this fall.
“It’s a really beautiful opportunity to encounter people who are trying to find their way and presenting them with the truth in a compassionate and relevant way,” he said.
WORTH IT ALL
While being a missionary is a significant commitment of time and energy, the greatest rewards of the work stem from the greatest difficulties, said Cargill.
“Persevering and seeing the fruits God is bringing from the work we’re doing is amazing,” he said. “The longer I stay with FOCUS, the more I get to see this through the conversions of men and women.”
“I see men going to seminary and giving God the opportunity to call them into that vocation,” he said. “(I see) people who were Catholic and didn’t go to Mass come back to Mass and believe in the Eucharist. (I) see people wrapped up in the party lifestyle and see them recognize that it’s not fulfilling and be able to love themselves and love others again.”
In FOCUS recruitment, Nordhues is able to witness spiritual multiplication at an even deeper level. Her job is to help others discern the call to missionary discipleship. In her transition from being a missionary to working for the recruitment team, she has witnessed FOCUS’ influence grow from the students she has personally affected to all of the students impacted by the missionaries she’s recruited.
“That’s why I do what I do,” she said. “The ‘yes’ is worth it all. Even just for one.”