By Sara Kraft
The Newman Center at Northwest Missouri State in Maryville, Missouri is a place that radically changes lives. It provides more than just a safe zone for Catholic students; it is truly taking the Gospel out to the people.
The outward momentum began three years ago, when the four missionaries from FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) arrived at Northwest Missouri State University and helped transform the Newman Center into a place where God’s love and mercy are communicated to the broken. The missionaries seek to help Newman Center students on their path to sainthood by building fellowship and bearing witness to the Gospel. Currently, 150 Northwest Missouri State University students are active in the NWSU Newman Center out of approximately 6,000 students on campus.
The mission of FOCUS is to share the hope and joy of the Gospel with college and university students and to train students to be disciples of Christ that go out themselves. Missionaries are trained in Church teaching, prayer, sacred Scripture, evangelization and discipleship and are then sent out to college campuses to engage students through Christ centered friendship. Through Bible studies, outreach events, mission trips and one-on-one discipleship, missionaries inspire and build up students in the faith, teaching them to go out to spread the good news and to live the Great Commission: Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19).
The Newman Center “has changed my faith life around. It has challenged me to step further into my faith and act it out and believe what I said,” explained sophomore Ben Mullins, who first met Newman Center students when they helped him move into his dorm as a freshman as part of the University-sponsored Cat Crew. Ben now leads one of twenty Bible studies offered for Northwest students. These studies are offered in dorms, the student union, and various other places on campus and make God’s word present all throughout Northwest’s campus. The focus of the Bible studies are sharing faith, praying with the students, and working through the basics of their relationship with God.
The Bible study leaders take special care to meet with their Bible study participants one on one in order to invite them into a deeper relationship with Christ. Eventually, these students may be invited to enter discipleship with their Bible study leader, which is an intensive mentor relationship to equip others. Currently, twenty-five students are in discipleship.
“The students now have the formation they needed to transform the Newman Center from what was once simply a place of hangout to a missionary place,” Director Max Pawlowski explained. “There is a sense of mission that simply wasn’t here before.” Additionally, since the addition of the FOCUS team, seven students have applied and been accepted as full-time FOCUS missionaries, with at least four more seniors applying this year. “We are all called to be missionary disciples, and they want to do it more.”
Jordan Johnson is one such student. When Jordan came to Northwest, he was a Pentecostal Christian. Through his genuine relationship with Director Max and other students, Jordan converted to Catholicism two years ago. He is currently a FOCUS intern, and will become a full-time missionary after graduating Northwest. “We strive to be personable, loving, and open and to put on display the love of Jesus Christ through our words and actions and to be intentional about our conversations,” Jordan explained. “The genuine love and friendship the individuals that walk through the Newman Center experience is amazing.”
This fall, Max said the student leaders really focused on Fall Outreach to students. “The first two weeks of classes are the most essential to determine student involvement,” he explained. Prior to the start of school, the leadership team held a retreat that focused on the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, and the New Evangelization to prepare them for their outreach to the incoming freshman. The student leaders then showed up to everything the university hosted to get to know students and to build relationships. The Newman Center also hosted fun events like a “Paint Party” where participants wore all white and had the opportunity to paint their clothes. Black lights showcased their handiwork, while student leaders took the opportunity to build relationships with other students.
Wednesday evening dinner is a weekly opportunity for students to check out the Newman Center. A good home cooked meal is offered, typically cooked by faculty members, parishioners at St. Gregory’s in Maryville, or parents of students. This also allows the community the opportunity to see what the Newman Center is all about.
Each semester, the Newman Center offers a Camino retreat, focused on the Way of St. James. The retreat focuses on prayer, the Eucharist, Mary, and Discipleship. This retreat is directed each semester by two students and is staffed by students. This fall, 25 students helped with the retreat either on the ‘E Team’ – the Evangelization Team or the ‘S Team’ – the Servant Team.
E Team members seek to build relationships with the participants and teach them lectio divina and the rosary to lead them in prayer. The S Team participates in Eucharistic adoration around the clock for the participants. They also fix meals and provide behind the scenes support. The team has five weeks of intense preparation and prayer to prepare for the retreat. This semester, 16 students attended, drawing from all walks of life. After attending the Camino Retreat, several students have decided to enter the Catholic Church.
Additionally, students and FOCUS missionaries practice “barehanded evangelization” where they go out on campus and simply try to engage students they have never met. One way they do this is with several question surveys. Depending upon how they answer the question, students and missionaries can then engage. If nothing else, they are hoping to give the survey respondents a positive experience with a Catholic.
“I never knew to evangelize. I never thought it was my job. I have grown in courage and can go up to anyone and be myself,” explained junior Malerie Davied.
“One of the coolest things is when students look in the mirror and realize they are different,” explained first year FOCUS missionary Zack Gonzalez. “They say, ‘oh, my Gosh, I can do what the people in the Gospel did.’ You see them take up their cross and run the race.”