Young people often buck the system and declare their independence–sometimes in completely unexpected ways. I recently talked with three college graduates, Tyler, Jason and Joshua with degrees in electrical engineering, graphic arts, and business and finance respectively. Joshua has also just recently earned an MBA. I wanted to know why it was that just before their graduations, these three young men decided not to work in the fields of their degrees. Instead, they joined the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) becoming missionaries; working on college campuses to win souls for Christ and fundraising 100% their own salaries. To make matters even more astounding, all three are now married with children and fundraising their entire family incomes while they continue as FOCUS missionaries. Say what?
Why would three outgoing, articulate and educated young men chose such a radical life? One word: Jesus. He was a radical guy and he did radical things like suffering and dying on a cross out of love for us. All three young men were once college students asleep at the wheel of life–at least in spiritual matters. No surprise, since surveys indicate that 85% of Catholic college students don’t go to Sunday Mass. For some, it’s the first time no one is around to notice whether they go to church. They may even leave home with the best of intentions but eventually slip away. For others, they had not been going for a long time anyway. In either case, the lure of parties, socializing and worldly concerns often mutes any inkling for religion. But life without God leaves a gaping hole which people are apt to notice it they stop long enough to feel it. It is a pivotal time to reach people. FOCUS Missionaries help to fill in that space with Jesus Christ.
FOCUS has enlisted an army of missionaries to evangelize our young adults. It was founded in 1998 by Curtis Martin and Dr. Edward Sri and sends missionaries around the country to campuses. In just twelve years, FOCUS now extends to 50 campuses across the United States with over 200 full-time staff members. (Of those, around 12 have continued after marriage and having a family.) More than 10,000 students are involved in FOCUS on college campuses through a number of activities including Bible studies. FOCUS takes recent college graduates, trains them in the teachings of the Catholic Church, Scripture and practical aspects of ministry, and sends them out typically in teams of four to serve on college campuses to reach kids through friendship and win them over to Christ.
For all three men, it was FOCUS missionaries that brought them to a personal relationship with Jesus that changed their lives dramatically. Before college graduation they all felt a call to do the same–reach out to other college students and win them over to the Kingdom of God. The degrees are an essential qualification for the job, and yet, these young people find the call to evangalize stronger than their earlier career plans.
Sitting across the table in a bookstore coffee shop, I admired Maria, the five-month old baby of Tyler and Lynelle Kolden. They met in Denver in 2005 at a National Focus conference. Both were looking for a relationship with Jesus and ended up beginning a relationship with each other with Jesus at the center. Tyler graduated from University of North Dakota and became a FOCUS missionary. Lynelle joined him in the ministry the following year when she graduated in biology although they served on different campuses–he at Annapolis Naval Academy in MD and she at University of Maryland. The following year, they married, served together another year and now Lynelle will stay home to care for their baby, although she’ll continue to evangelize and support the work of her husband.
Okay, we love Jesus too, but not many of us are willing to put everything aside to follow Him. So what gives? And aren’t their parents warning them that this is crazy? Missionaries have to depend on the charity of others. Babies need diapers, food, a roof over their heads, and some level of security that this will all be there tomorrow. Tyler and Lynelle smile at my concerns. Yes, they’ve heard it before and even had to calm the fears of family members, but in the end, there is an assurance that all the security they need is to trust in where Jesus leads them.
One of the primary concerns for security is health insurance. Tyler explained that FOCUS provides a group insurance that is the same rate whether a person is single or has a family. Since missionaries are young, healthy and educated, they form a low-risk demographic to insure; thus, FOCUS can get relatively reasonable rates.
Regarding asking people to support them financially or in prayer, as “mission partners,” Tyler points out that we are all responsible to serve God and spread the Christian message through our time, treasure and talent. Even the missionaries tithe a portion of their income to charity. “Catholics get complacent,” said Tyler. “We all have time, treasure and talent that we are called to give back to God. If a person feels too busy but makes $10 an hour, then a donation of $40 represents 4 hours of his time.”
For Tyler, the experience of being led to Christ and forming lasting friendships, directed him to stay on as a missionary. “Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students and 85% fall away from their faith,” he pointed out. “It doesn’t have to be that way. When people feel loved just because they are made in God’s image, it changes everything. Students become attracted to the joy of living out their faith and having integrity inside and out.”
One way to draw students into friendships is through fun activities a like a campus barbecue, football games, dances, Bible study or a volley ball league. For example, Tyler made friends with a freshman student at the Naval Academy that was drinking heavily and leading an immoral life. The student was threatened with expulsion. He started coming to FOCUS events including a Bible study and eventually completely turned his life around and stays in touch with Tyler. Now, graduated and serving in the Navy, this young man is an example of Catholic manhood and a beacon of light to others. It is that sort of transformation that keeps FOCUS growing. Many of the missionaries were themselves transformed through FOCUS.
Joshua Gideon counts himself among the transformed. He and his wife Elisabeth, a former missionary, are expecting their fifth child. Joshua is the breadwinner, relying 100% on donations.
“We are doing it from the model of Jesus and his disciples to trust in God’s providence,” said Joshua. “If it was just a neat thing to do, then I could understand their point, [that people think they are crazy] but this is about the opportunity to reach people so they can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” According to him, some people have been called to the primary task to reach for souls for the kingdom. “If a person has a passion for reaching souls, it’s the greatest gift they can give.”
Mission partner support is key to this new evangelization. “Every day, I’m praying for my partners’ intentions,” said Joshua. “As our own kids have gotten older, they are now joining in and praying with us for our mission partners and support team.”
The missionary’s goal is to find 50-100 people that can donate monthly. “We are going on our ninth year,” said Joshua. “We’ll send out around 250 newsletters to our supporters. Some are not financial partners but they pray for us.” He explained that some people are not able to donate money. “If they are already tithing and can’t afford to give more, then ‘no’ is a great answer. Four months ago a woman with an alcoholic husband and troubled marriage became a partner in just prayer. Then, a couple days ago she sent a donation that came at a great time, we had just moved from Kansas to Colorado and needed it. So often when we have a great need something out of the blue will come in.”
Jason and Kjersti Eilers just had a baby girl this summer. Kjersti kept losing boyfriends to the seminary, so it was natural for her to fall in love with someone that loved Jesus enough to give his life to Him. Jason is serving for a second year at Loras College in Dubuque, IA
He said that said he is finding that most young people are very poorly educated in their faith. “They don’t know about Fatima or Lourdes or the St. Michael prayer,” he reported. “They are not surrounded with anything that has to do with Jesus or the Church. The opportunity to share the faith with them is awesome. A little bit of truth goes a long way; it clicks with them. A lot of them have been searching for something in their life.
Jason admits that a spouse’s shared commitment to the demands of mission work is crucial. Missionaries go where the students are which means participating in evening and weekend events. Daytimes are filled with a holy hour, meetings, fund raising, a Bible study for the missionaries, Mass and preparing events. Days fill up quickly so carving out family time takes effort.
“Kjersti comes to Mass with me and helps at some events. She also leads a Bible study,” says Jason. He compares it to being a pastor’s wife–a helpmate in the ministry.
All three men stated that they want to continue with Focus as long as they still feel called. Joshua summed their work up this way: “If what Jesus did was true, then what is that asking you to do in your life? The great commission [to make disciples of all nations] is a mandate for all disciples of Christ. Everyone needs to be a missionary in their own way. If we are going to go toe to toe with the devil, we need more people”
For More information about FOCUS, go to: http://focusonline.org/
To support any of the FOCUS missionaries mention in the article contact them directly: