“When I was in high school, I was around a rough crowd of drug dealers, people into drugs, selling drugs — not a good group of people,” said 24-year-old Chris Schilmoeller of Nebraska.
It was his discovery of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) at the University of Nebraska that he says changed his life — as it has for countless others.
“I grew up Catholic and everything, so, before I got into high school, I really understood the faith and embraced it and didn’t doubt it so much,” he said. “When I got to the University of Nebraska, I didn’t know too many people because none of my friends went there. … I started hanging out at the Newman Center, and they invited me to a FOCUS Bible study.”
FOCUS, which has been serving university students since 1998, has a mission of helping students “to know Christ Jesus, and to fulfill his great commission by first living and then communicating the fullness of life within the family of God, the Church.”
Jeremy Rivera, the national director of communications for FOCUS, told Our Sunday Visitor that the campus outreach sends teams of missionaries to a college campus. Each missionary builds a friendship with two or three students and mentor them. Those students in turn take on a leadership role and commit to a lifestyle of chastity and sobriety. They are also encouraged to reach out to fellow students and welcome them into the community.
Rivera said FOCUS aims to bring young adults into personal relationships with Christ and to raise a “spiritual army” of active Catholics. FOCUS has achieved those goals to the tune of 4,000 student participants and 227 missionaries on 50 campuses — all with stories of how FOCUS impacted their lives. Here are some examples, from a June 29-July 1 FOCUS event at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ill.
‘Not a cookie-cutter’
During his time at Nebraska, Schilmoeller became a student leader, and, after graduation, he became a full-time FOCUS missionary. “It’s just an honor, after I graduated, to just help other students like FOCUS helped me,” he said.
Like all FOCUS missionaries, he attends intensive training sessions each summer and raises his own living expenses for each school year. He had to commit two years to the program when he joined, and abstain from dating when he first came on staff. Having fulfilled his commitment, he chose to stay in the program a third year.
Schilmoeller works with students at New York University, where, he said, people try to sell him drugs nearly every time he visits the campus. He said that his background has been helpful in his ministry.
“A lot of people in the city have been around that type of environment, so, especially when they’re thinking about who they’re going to hang out with or who they’re going to talk to or who they’re going to open up to, it’s easier for them to open up to someone they feel more comfortable with,” he said. “I’m not a cookie-cutter Christian. … I can talk about other things and relate to them in other ways.”
He said his work can be difficult, but he remembers God is in control and that the Holy Spirit is working through him.
In love with the Faith
“When I was in my teens, I had leukemia, and I had chemotherapy,” said sixth-year FOCUS missionary Lori Whitlatch. “I had my hips replaced, and I had a lot of trauma.”
As college helped her escape her high school pain, she began partying and drifted away from Catholicism. Though raised in the Faith, she said, she had never developed a true relationship with God: “Without that relationship, it was just doing a bunch of good things and grading yourself on the curve of how good are other people.”
After graduation, she moved to Kansas City, Mo., for graduate school and then employment as a social worker. “I felt like I was putting Band-Aids on a lot of social problems as a social worker. ... I just knew that God was calling me to something deeper both for myself and for the people [I could help],” she said.
She joined a young adult Catholic group and “fell in love” with the Faith. “When you fall in love, you want to share that with others, and I also knew that I had to do something. I realized there were so many sleeping Catholics,” she said.
She learned about FOCUS when missionaries came to visit her group, and she applied to join the outreach staff.
Now a FOCUS veteran, she uses her ministry to disarm people with love. She said she wants to be open to the will of God, and, for the foreseeable future, that means dedicating her life to serving others through FOCUS.
Filling the faith gap
Raised in foster care, Mario Martinez said he found it difficult to practice his faith growing up. When he enrolled at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., he changed that — by joining FOCUS.
“Many students go to college and walk away from their faith because no one is there to direct them,” he said. “FOCUS can go out there and fill that gap with Christ, so students don’t feel left out.”
Martinez started as a participant in the outreach and then became a student leader. When FOCUS removed its missionaries from his campus, Martinez volunteered to continue the program, though he was not a trained staff member.
After graduation, he chose to continue his involvement with FOCUS. He underwent formal instruction and is now a missionary at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah. “I’m really, really excited,” he said. “I’m ready to really radically change many students’ lives. I’m excited God has called me to this vocation, and I look forward to seeing what he can do with me for the next two years.”
Living as God intended
Like Martinez, Mary Grode, 22, recently graduated and is starting her first year as a missionary.
“I got involved in FOCUS my sophomore year of college because I realized I was living a double life,” she recalled. “I was living out my Catholic faith, but I had friends who were really not living a moral life, and I was depressed and feeling unfulfilled.”
She said getting involved with FOCUS helped her live out the life God intended for her — and helped her share that way of life with others. She said her first summer of training was a period of spiritual and mental growth, especially because of daily Mass, Holy Hour and the Rosary. She called the summer a time for purification and prayer. She serves at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.
She said, “I’m most eager to meet new students and to just go out on campus.”
In a few years, perhaps the students she meets will be entering their own missionary work — with their own FOCUS stories to tell.
Amy Kiley writes from Illinois.