By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead | WKC
Whether through National Evangelization Teams – also known as NET – or Fellowship of Catholic University Students – also known as FOCUS – younger generations from the Diocese of Owensboro are seeking to evangelize their peers in new, fresh ways.
Andy Day believes peer-to-peer evangelization is igniting because “young people are realizing that there is more to life than what the world offers.”
“Young people have either seen and experienced what the world offers and rejected it, or they have seen what it has done to the prior generation,” said Day, an Owensboro native who today serves as southeast regional director for FOCUS.
Day grew up at Immaculate Parish in Owensboro, but now lives and works in Orlando, Florida where he oversees FOCUS teams at 21 southeastern U.S. campuses.
Day said that peer-to-peer evangelization can certainly fall under the Work of Mercy of “instructing the ignorant,” but not for the reason some would expect.
“In some ways we’re all ignorant,” he said, “of how much God loves us. If we can show others how much God loves them, it changes everything.”
Doing something great
FOCUS was founded in 1988 by Curtis Martin as a campus outreach program to help college students grow in discipleship, by inviting them to pursue a relationship with Jesus.
Choosing outreach to college students specifically was unique – but important.
According to a 2008 Pew Research Center survey, almost 80 percent of those who leave the Catholic faith do so by age 23. The same survey states that the fastest-growing religious demographic in the United States are those who list faith preference as “unaffiliated.”
FOCUS establishes missionary teams on campuses, where missionaries can get to know students and help them learn how to introduce Jesus to their own peers.
Day said that a key aspect of FOCUS is in helping college students form “authentic friendships rooted in the Lord.”
“That is what young people want,” said Day. “They want to dare; they want to do something great.”
Annie Pfeifer, a 2016 graduate of Owensboro Catholic High School, always had a “passion for mission work.”
Her philosophy is that “when you lose yourself you find yourself,” and mission work is certainly the place for both.
This summer Pfeifer embarks on missionary training with NET Ministries, headquartered in Minnesota.
NET was founded by Mark Berchem in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1981. NET had an eye to evangelizing high schoolers – the demographic often lost as youth start to make more of their own decisions about faith.
NET teams of young men and women ordinarily drive from parish to parish across specific regions of the United States and Canada, offering retreats and spiritual formation to the youth there. Several teams are assigned to minister to specific parishes for the nine-month NET year.
Since 1981, NET has led more than 29,000 retreats and ministered to more than 1.7 million youth.
Pfeifer, who said her number one goal is to “become a saint and bring as many people with me as I can,” said that young peoples’ hearts “yearn for the same thing.”
“We’re there to delve in and help them realize what their hearts are yearning for,” she said. “Youth fill their hearts with things that don’t matter. Our job is to show them that you don’t have to search any longer – He’s right there.”
Pfeifer said that being involved in ministry, especially peer ministry, requires the virtue of humility to “realize I’m a sinner just like everyone else.”
Also, she said, having an open mind: “Don’t be closed off. See every opportunity as a way to lead people to Christ.”
Emily Bruns, a parishioner of St. Ann Parish in Morganfield, recently graduated from Murray State University – where a FOCUS team was established during her sophomore year.
Already involved in campus ministry, Bruns became involved with FOCUS and helped lead Bible studies for her peers.
“I like meeting people where they are,” said Bruns, who began training as a FOCUS missionary this spring. “Finding something in common, finding common ground; don’t put them down or anything.”
Bruns wasn’t always so certain about her calling to join FOCUS.
“I always said I wanted to be a teacher,” said Bruns, who studied education. But the fall of her senior year, Bruns, who was still actively involved with FOCUS, was told that she’d make a great missionary.
“I was afraid that God would call me to be a missionary,” said Bruns, adding that over time she realized she was meant to do this.
Now she looks forward to helping others encounter Christ: “FOCUS gave me the tools to form a personal relationship with Jesus.”
Day added that once young people are introduced to the person of Jesus Christ, “they realize only he can make them into the men and women they are created to be.”
“In this they realize that what St. Catherine of Siena holds true: ‘Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire,’” he said.
Bruns and her fellow FOCUS missionaries will be sent to minister at assigned college campuses this fall.
Pfeifer and her fellow NET missionaries will be sent to minister at either one parish for a year, or sent on a “travel team,” which involves ministry at different parishes throughout the year.
To learn more about these ministries, visit netusa.org or focus.org.