By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Allison Keegan would be a magnet in a crowd — with her reddish hair and infectious smile, people would be drawn to her. But that’s not her style. Keegan is drawn to people, to serve them, to teach them and to talk about her faith.
The new diocesan director of Young Adult Ministry plans to continue reaching out to other young people and “be an instrument to help foster their relationship with God.” Keegan started her new job Sept. 6, taking over from Carrie Kafka, who had served as the ministry’s director since 2005. For the 26-year-old Keegan, this is the “amazing dream job” she has wanted for a long time.
Keegan was born and raised in a strong Catholic tradition in Pittsburg, Kan., attending St. Mary’s grade school and St. Mary’s Colgan High School, both affiliated with Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. Her father started the first Perpetual Adoration chapel in Frontenac, Kan., in the early 1990s, and she remembered going with him, occasionally in the middle of the night. Wrapped in a blanket, the little girl would try to pray and stay awake, not always successfully.
“I learned about the Blessed Sacrament at an early age,” she said. “I get my love of reading and the desire to understand and know the Magisterium of the Catholic church from my dad and those nights in the chapel.”
Her parents had a lot of influence on Allison, the youngest of four, and the only girl. “My dad always told me that God will take the good out of whatever happens in life,” Keegan said, “which has helped me through all the times in my life. And my mother is a wonderful model of femininity. My parents are amazing!”
Keegan followed her brothers through high school and chose to attend Pittsburg State University, deciding to major in education. She participated regularly in activities at the Newman Center and in 2005, was elected and served as president of the Catholic campus organization. “I can say I helped to change what was mostly a social group into a spiritually-oriented service organization,” she said.
At the end of her junior year, she joined the Americorps Volunteers. After training in Sacramento, Keegan was sent to work with a team to help rebuild several areas of Gulf Coastal Mississippi devastated by Hurricane Katrina. It has been estimated that about 275,000 homes were destroyed by the hurricane’s 175 mile-an-hour winds and the 12-27 foot storm surge that traveled 12 miles inland in Mississippi.
Even a year after the storm, it was an eye-opener, she said. For one thing, it was the first time she learned what it was like to be in an environment that was not Catholic. Equally jolting were the work sites. Growing up in the Midwest, Keegan was used to tornadoes and had seen destruction and damage in their wake, but this was different. Katrina was a huge, ocean-fed hurricane. “We lived in tents pitched on concrete slabs,” she recalled, “where houses used to be, and it was sunup to sundown work building homes. In one area, I stayed in a military tent pitched on a slab where a Catholic school had been. The building, the playground equipment, was gone, but I found a grotto to Mary. Mary’s Grotto still stood, which helped to heighten my awareness of the presence of God.”
The work was exhausting but energizing. “I realized that we are fully alive when in service to others. I think that is our entire purpose in life – to serve people and not take our own needs into consideration. I was tired but I felt so peaceful at the end of the day.”
Keegan worked for a year in the Gulf Coast, before returning to Pittsburg State and her senior year in college.
Life took on new meaning after that year, she said. She began looking for other opportunities to serve, while finishing her degree in elementary education. Keegan then enrolled in graduate school to pursue a master’s in school counseling.
She was only 23, but her life was about to fill with tough decisions and transitions. “That summer,” Keegan said, “I started noticing that a lot of my Protestant friends were ‘on fire’ for their faith. I’m very passionate, never static, always wanting to discover and learn from people who are more mature on their path to God. I want to be the best version of myself. I believe that every encounter we have is from God, to inspire us and we can learn from them.”
While watching and listening to her friends, she began to think that maybe it was time to leave the Catholic tradition, perhaps to become a member of a non-denominational Christian church. “While trying to make that transition, I received a lot of scrutiny, and it wasn’t pleasant. It was a very difficult time in my life.” After a while she felt the need to escape the scrutiny and decided to spend a summer studying abroad in Finland and South Korea, before visiting Australia.
“I was glad to leave,” she recalled, “eager to put myself in a situation where I was in the minority, anonymous. I didn’t even take a phone.”
The month in Finland passed uneventfully. She had an 11-day break before leaving for South Korea, and had an urge to visit Ireland, her ancestors’ homeland. Keegan found another girl who was traveling to Dublin and off they went.
“We stayed in Dublin,” she said, “two blocks away from St. Mary’s Church. When I heard the bells, I decided to go to Mass. First time in seven months.” She recalled the hesitancy she felt in opening the door, but went in and sat in a pew. “I smelled incense, and all of a sudden, I was teary eyed. It felt like home.”
It was the feast of Corpus Christi. During his homily, the priest looked around at the congregation and said, “You say that you love Me, but do you miss Me?” Keegan felt awkward, “It was like he was looking straight at me.” When he repeated the question, she realized he was talking about the Eucharist.
After Mass she asked to speak with the priest and in his office, Keegan opened her heart, talking without interruption of her faith and her doubts, her leaving the Catholic church and joining a non-denominational church, and her emotional response to Mass that day.
“He didn’t scold me, in fact he applauded my journey,” she said. “He smiled and said, ‘You were searching for the truth. But doesn’t it feel good to come home?’ Then he gave me Holy Communion, my first Eucharist in seven months, and it was the feast of Corpus Christi. I felt like Christ was welcoming me back home.”
It was another beginning for Keegan. She went on to South Korea to study and pick up her faith journey as a Catholic again. After her return to Pittsburg, she finished her master’s in school counseling and began sending out resumes.
The principal of Holy Spirit school in Overland Park, Kan., hired Keegan to teach second grade. Excitedly she moved to Kansas City in mid-May, looking forward to her first year of teaching, meeting new friends and continuing her faith journey at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church.
A week after she moved to Kansas City, an F-5 tornado destroyed a large area of Joplin. “Joplin was like a second home to me,” Keegan said, “Pittsburg’s only about a half hour away.” She immediately volunteered to go to Joplin for a couple of weeks and help wherever she was needed. While there she ran into Carrie Kafka and a group of City on the Hill volunteers. She had first heard about City on a Hill and Carrie Kafka from two good friends three years earlier and “was impressed by what I heard about Carrie and the ministry. I met her very briefly on a visit to Kansas City in 2010. The first time we really talked was when she came with City on a Hill to Joplin.
“They were an amazing group,” she said, “and Carrie and I talked a lot about City on a Hill and the other young adult ministry groups. I told her she had the most amazing job!”
Returning to Kansas City, “I plugged myself into City on a Hill 100 percent,” she said. “I put myself in touch with amazing young people in their 20s and 30s who are prayerfully involved in their faith journey and striving to grow in holiness.”
A month or so later, she learned that Kafka had resigned her position as Young Adult Ministry director, as she was getting married and felt it was time for her to move on. Keegan told herself she would not apply for the job; the principal at Holy Spirit was expecting her there before the first day of school. But all the time she was telling herself she wasn’t going to apply, she was putting the situation in God’s hands and putting together her updated resume and sending it off to Kafka and Dr. Claude Sasso, vice-chancellor of faith formation and evangelization, and Kafka’s boss. When she was offered the position, Keegan went to the principal at Holy Spirit, determined to stay with teaching, but found the principal very supportive. “‘God wants this ministry to continue and thrive,’ she told me, ‘and you have the opportunity to help change the culture of this city.’”
Looking back over the summer, she added, “I believe the major decisions in our lives are easier if we turn them over to God, in faith. I’m a quotation person,” she said. “This is the quote that guided me through this past summer. It’s from St. Faustina: ‘The shortest path to holiness is faithfulness to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.’”
When considering how she plans to move the Young Adult Ministry programs forward, she has several ideas she wants to explore. I want to continue the thriving programs: Band of Brothers and Sisterhood. Theology on Tap. And of course, City on a Hill. I also want to try something different. What influences people the most these days? The Internet, social media. But using it can be good or bad. I believe our job is to infuse as much good as possible into social media. So I want a blog that is full of personal stories and testimonies of faith journeys, trials and crosses that we all have. I want to blog about events connected to City on a Hill and Young Adult Ministry. I want to start an Internet witness to faith. I want City on a Hill to be pro-active in pro-life ministry. Our job is to tell the truth and influence others. Bringing that influence to the Internet will be a big thrust over the next year.”
Keegan plans to work to make City on a Hill a household name. She wants to use the talents of the group to create posters, for instance, and place them in churches diocese-wide to get the word out about the opportunity “to be witnesses to our faith and deepen our prayer lives, while having fun.” She added that the young adults participating in City on a Hill have amazing opportunities to evangelize with friends and peers.
“It’s important to keep pulling, pushing and challenging them,” she said, “to continue forming their faith. That’s part of what’s so great about City on a Hill, it seeks to meet everyone where they are in their faith formation. I’m humbled and honored to be in this position. I think it’s important to ultimately live life so that when people encounter you, they encounter God.”
Keegan, a goal-oriented marathon runner, sets goals, writes them down and strives to achieve them. She has set some goals as the new diocesan director of Young Adult Ministry, and is already beginning to work toward achieving them.
For information on City on a Hill, or any of the Young Adult and campus ministries, contact Allison Keegan, (816) 756-1850, ext. 552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.