University of Tennessee is among FOCUS campuses seeing Catholic outreach to sororities and fraternities
By Bill Brewer
The Fellowship of Catholic University Students is expanding its mission: revolutionizing for Christ the sorority and fraternity culture on college campuses.
When FOCUS missionaries first arrived on the University of Tennessee- Knoxville campus in 2012 to start a chapter at St. John XXIII Parish, the mission was to work with college students to strengthen their faith through liturgy, apologetics, and social activities. FOCUS now has a presence on the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga campus beginning in this 2019-20 school year.
The mission hasn’t changed, but the FOCUS outreach now extends to UT sororities and fraternities, campus communities not typically associated with faith development.
Joanna Brady, national manager of outreach to campus Greek communities for FOCUS, explained that Protestant faiths already reach out to Greek organizations as a way to evangelize. And they have been successful.
“Our brothers and sisters in the Protestant world have been doing this for decades,” Ms. Brady said. “The model we use for FOCUS Greek is the same we use with FOCUS in general. We develop authentic friendships with students, we create a divine intimacy so that a one-on-one relationship with Jesus is for life, and we want to inspire clarity and conviction about spiritual multiplication. The model is to invest deeply in a few people so they can invest deeply in a few people to reach the world for Christ.”
Ms. Brady said FOCUS Greek started in 2009 and is now active on more than 100 of the 164 college campuses where FOCUS has a presence. During the 2018-19 school year, FOCUS Greek engaged more than 2,600 sorority and fraternity members in Bible studies.
The Fellowship of Catholic University Students was founded in 1998 to invite college students into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. FOCUS works to inspire and equip students for a lifetime of Christ-centered evangelization, discipleship, and friendships in which they lead others to do the same.
The Denver-based faith organization has more than 730 missionaries in the field, serving the 164 campuses and eight parishes across the United States and Europe.
According to FOCUS, the FOCUS Greek missionaries encourage Greek students to seek their identity in Christ instead of their sororities and fraternities, or academic achievement, or extracurricular service accomplishments.
FOCUS missionaries are investing in Greek students by developing those authentic friendships, becoming involved alongside them at philanthropic events, “and helping them grow in their relationship with Christ through Bible studies, daily Mass, and other faith-driven activities,” according to FOCUS.
Brooke Soares and Mike Buell are FOCUS Greek missionaries at UT-Knoxville who are approaching their mission work much the way they approached school when they attended the University of Alabama (Ms. Soares) and the University of Nebraska (Mr. Buell). They are building friendships with students, and Jesus Christ is the foundation of those relationships.
Ms. Soares and Mr. Buell are half of the FOCUS missionary team at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. They are partnered with Payton Burnett and Spencer Purdy in bringing the Catholic faith to the 29,000-student campus.
At Alabama, Ms. Soares was active in Delta Gamma sorority, and Mr. Buell was active in Phi Kappa Theta fraternity at Nebraska.
“During a diffi cult moment at the beginning of my junior year of college, I was encountered by a sorority sister who was a FOCUS student leader and actively lived her faith. It was friendship with her and other students and missionaries that brought me to the person of Jesus Christ,” Ms. Soares said.
Up until then, Ms. Soares was active in a multi-denominational Bible study through her sorority, which taught her prayer, fellowship, and the importance of Scripture.
“I had the opportunity to practice Christianity, which was beautiful, but not my Catholic faith, which was what I truly wanted and needed,” she said, noting that when FOCUS came to the University of Alabama she was able to learn more about fully living her Catholic faith through fellowship, prayer, the sacraments, and Church teaching.
Mr. Buell didn’t have to venture very far out onto the Nebraska campus to find likeminded students. He said Phi Kappa Theta is a faith-based fraternity with strong Catholic ties that attracts young men with similar beliefs.
He said FOCUS is very active on the Nebraska campus, so his association with the student evangelization program was natural.
“A FOCUS conference that I attended my senior year was a turning point in my faith. After that, I started to pray every day and developed a relationship with Jesus that I never had,” said Mr. Buell, who graduated from Nebraska in December 2018.
The FOCUS Greek missionaries believe being active in a sorority and fraternity in college has prepared them well for their evangelization efforts.
“Being a Greek woman gives me common ground with young women, either rushing or already in a sorority,” said Ms. Soares, who graduated from Alabama in May 2018. “Being Catholic is already difficult in college, but I think there is even more stress in trying to be Catholic in the Greek community and so many just need someone to understand that.”
Mr. Buell has found that being in a fraternity has given him a relatability to men in Greek life as he understands their unique lifestyle.
They agree the key to building those friendships is to meet the students where they are and invite them into the FOCUS missionaries’ lives.
“Our approach to mission is Jesus’ approach to mission. He met them where they were at,” Ms. Soares said. “I’m growing in deeper friendship with women who desire authenticity. When you love something or someone you want to share it or them with others. As we grow together they desire to invite their friends to Bible study and Mass. There is a big difference in friendship focused on yourself and friendship focused on God. We make them aware of this friendship focused on God, to offer something that’s real.”
She cites 1 Thessalonians 2:8 as a guidepost for their Greek ministry: “With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.”
Ms. Soares and Mr. Buell say they are well-received on the UT campus as they lead Bible study for Greek students, attend Mass with them, and share in social activities.
As alumni of Greek communities who are now evangelizing in Greek communities, Ms. Soares and Mr. Buell are encouraged that God is working through them and their fellow FOCUS missionaries to build His kingdom on college campuses.
“God is doing very good things on this campus and we’re excited about the future of the Greek system at UT and the future of the Church because young people are the future of the Church,” Ms. Soares said.
The Greek system on college campuses is rooted in the values of community, academics, philanthropy, integrity, and friendship, according to FOCUS, and many Greek students occupy leadership roles within their sororities and fraternities and campus organizations like student government.
Ms. Brady said that in addition to Bible studies and campus events, FOCUS Greek and FOCUS Missions host spring-break trips for students in Greek life. These mission trips include El Salvador, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Mexico City. More than 500 Greek students have taken part in the mission trips over the past five years.
“Our short-term mission trips are designed where we have relationships with people on the ground in those countries. We’ve seen Greek students have a transformative change, where they’ve returned from mission trips and then can identify pockets of poverty on the campuses where they are,” Ms. Brady said.
It’s just that kind of spiritual impact that FOCUS hopes to have on the students it is working to reach.
The impact is measurable. Among FOCUS alumni, more than 850 have pursued vocations within the Catholic Church, and many more have taken their faith into parishes, where they continue to grow in that faith.
To open the evangelization door in the Greek community—and the broader campus—FOCUS missionaries meet students at Mass and follow up, or they work through alumni who might have a connection with both Greeks and FOCUS, or they simply make an introduction and announcement at sorority and fraternity chapters to make themselves known.
Ms. Brady acknowledges that challenges can exist in establishing Bible studies in sororities and fraternities around the country. But for the most part she finds Greek culture to be welcoming to the Holy Spirit.
“Generally, we are received well. We aren’t going to force ourselves into any area. We don’t want it to be forced and we won’t go where we’re not welcome,” she said. “It’s really a breath of fresh air when someone says ‘I want to get to know you.’ We want to become friends with these students. Get to know your neighbors and invest deeply in them. That’s how we get to know the Lord.”
“I believe there are many good things in the Greek system, but there also are challenges that are amplified. It’s our responsibility to be a witness to the joy and hope that a relationship with Christ brings, and we want to do that,” she added.
Ms. Brady emphasized that both young men and young women are involved in Bible studies in fraternities and sororities, and their peers in FOCUS are accompanying them.
“It’s really beautiful to see what the Lord has been doing. These students are missionaries who are meeting them where they’re at,” Ms. Brady said. “I know they are doing great work on the UT campus.”