Fellowship amid COVID-19

FOCUS missionaries at UT-Chattanooga are working to evangelize in socially distanced ways

By Bill Brewer

As the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga watches 2020 end just as it began, with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on students and their course work, a small group of Catholic missionaries is fervently working to keep open lines of faith communication.

Four young adults are assigned to UTC as FOCUS missionaries, working out of the Newman Center on campus, and their ministry is to bring the light of Christ to as many students as possible through evangelization and good old friendship.

This is the second year the Fellowship of Catholic University Students has been ministering on the UTC campus.

For Amanda Tuck, Dominic Castlen, Julia Rabensteine, and Shannon Douglas, spreading the Gospel among those in their age group—among the most vulnerable demographics in the Catholic Church—is a fulfilling ministry, even when COVID-19 strikes a heavy blow against evangelization.

“Our goal is to reach all 11,000 students at UTC with the message of the Gospel. But we start by reaching a few, sending them out to teach others about the faith. So we, as missionaries, encounter students on campus, we invite them into formation about Jesus. We invite them into community and to the sacraments, and ultimately to the life of the Church. Our goal is to teach them how to do that. Eventually, by us investing in a few and teaching them to go invest in a few more, we can reach the whole campus,” said Ms. Tuck, who leads the FOCUS team on campus.

During a normal year, members of FOCUS have ample opportunity to reach those students. But during the 2020 school year, FOCUS has had to borrow a strategy from the Marines: improvise, adapt, and overcome.

“It’s day by day. This year, we have 45 students currently in six Bible studies. Our goal is to commission a few students in the spring to begin leading their own Bible studies. Our goal by the end of the (school) year is to reach at least 80 students in Bible studies,” Ms. Tuck said.

University of Tennessee-Chattanooga students gather for fellowship and a meal at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Newman Center.

“Right now, the challenge is meeting students because we have had several students who have to take a week or two off campus because they need to quarantine or go home. Getting time with students can be an obstacle. Normally, you can walk out on campus and meet a student in the library, in the cafeteria, on the field, wherever. But the reality with COVID is that not many students are present on campus, so we’ve had to be really creative in our outreach and getting into spaces where students are and asking students who we do know to invite their friends. It’s a lot of networking as well,” she added.

Despite the challenges, Father Valentin Iurochkin, IVE, who serves as the Newman Center chaplain on the UTC campus, has been impressed by the FOCUS missionaries’ tireless efforts to evangelize.

Father Iurochkin, who also serves as associate pastor of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, has watched the Newman Center swell with Catholic collegians seeking fellowship.

“So many people are attending Mass. I can’t believe it. Even with the challenge they (missionaries) have now, so many people are attending Mass. Their dedication and their work are resulting in visible fruit, there are lots of students. Sometimes we don’t have room for all the students at meals, so we must have additional chairs, additional tables,” Father Iurochkin noted.

The UTC Newman Center offers Mass on Wednesday evening and Sunday evening and Saturday morning. Different Knights of Columbus councils in the Chattanooga area, along with families, provide meals for the students after the Sunday Masses.

Deacon Brian Gabor, who serves as co-director of the UTC Newman Center with his wife, Donna, described the FOCUS missionaries as a “pretty dynamic team.”

“There’s no telling what they would be doing if it wasn’t for the coronavirus. Students would be busting down the door,” Deacon Gabor said.

Last spring when the coronavirus was spreading across the country and prompting many organizations—including churches—to suspend operations, FOCUS temporarily shifted its mission and outreach from in-person Bible studies and discipleship to online outreach like its FOCUS Digital Campus.

Bishop Richard F. Stika worked with Denver-based FOCUS to start a chapter at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in the fall of 2012 at St. John XXIII University Parish and Catholic Center, where the organization began its eighth year on the UT-Knoxville campus in August.

FOCUS, founded in 1998, has about 800 missionaries serving 171 campuses and nine parishes across the United States and Europe.

Bishop Stika wanted to replicate the success of FOCUS at UT-Knoxville with a chapter at UT-Chattanooga.

While the UTC chapter has been only a year-and-a-half on campus, Bishop Stika likes what he is seeing there despite the effects of COVID-19.

The FOCUS team from the University of Tennessee- Chattanooga meets with Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop Richard F. Stika at the Chancery in Knoxville in October.

“The Diocese of Knoxville is greatly blessed to have FOCUS ministers both in Knoxville and now in Chattanooga. This group at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga is from different parts of the country and went to different universities. We have FOCUS missionaries who are engaged to each other. They bring great joy. One of the things I emphasize is intentional discipleship. After they graduate from college, they give a certain amount of years of service to do as they did in the Acts of the Apostles: one-on-one ministry; inviting people to have a deeper relationship with Jesus. A number of them, that’s how they wound up in FOCUS. One told me he wasn’t actively involved in the Church, but through a FOCUS minister he became involved. Another minister was a nurse who worked for a couple of years and then volunteered for FOCUS. It’s just a great program,” Bishop Stika said.

“It’s very effective. One of our Sisters, Sister Maria Juan Anderson, RSM, was a FOCUS missionary. Many, many vocations have come out of FOCUS through a discernment they’re involved with,” he added, pointing out that he believes the FOCUS chapter at UT-Chattanooga to be as effective in ministering to students as the one at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. “I’m real pleased that we have them present there.”

Deacon Gabor said it is nothing short of “amazing” that the missionaries are carrying out six Bible studies through the Newman Center in the current campus environment. While Deacon Gabor is amazed, Bishop Stika was confident FOCUS would be a good fit in Chattanooga.

“The bishop saw the good things that they were doing in Knoxville and in his other past experiences with them. He told me a few years ago that he would like to see them at UTC one day. Last year was our first year with them. We had four missionaries last year and three went on to other things. One remained, and we got three new missionaries this year. My experience now has been with seven missionaries, and all seven have just so impressed me with their love of God and the joy they have in their mission, in their ministry, and the joy they help spread. To me, their joy is contagious, and they bring a specialness to the Newman Center, where they’re bringing in more students than we’ve had in the past, and those who are there are just joy-filled. It’s beautiful to see,” Deacon Gabor said.

Ms. Tuck, 27, is a third-year FOCUS missionary from Marietta, Ga., who attended the University of Georgia and Kennesaw State University and graduated with a degree in nursing. She worked as a nurse in an Atlanta pediatric hospital for about three years before joining FOCUS. Before arriving at UTC, she was a missionary at the University of Maine and team director at Florida Atlantic University.

“I encountered FOCUS my junior year of college through a Google search. I looked up Catholic mission trips and found FOCUS. I went on a three-week mission trip with FOCUS to the Amazon in Brazil. It also was a World Youth Day trip when World Youth Day was in Rio (de Janeiro). That was my first encounter with FOCUS missionaries,” Ms. Tuck said.

“They, for the first time in my life, told me the message of the Gospel and invited me into Bible study with them during the three weeks. I fell in love with the Church, with missions specifically. When I got back from that mission trip I became really involved in my campus Newman Center. We didn’t have FOCUS, but I did what’s called the digital FOCUS campus where somebody from the Denver office mentors you every week. They teach you the skills of how to lead a Bible study, how to lead other women. I did that throughout my college time. When I graduated, I worked as a nurse. It was during my time working as a nurse that I felt that urgency of our culture to know Christ Jesus because of all the brokenness I saw in the hospital setting, specifically the brokenness of the family,” she added.

Mr. Castlen is a 23-year-old Western Kentucky University graduate with an accounting degree. He is originally from Lexington, Ky., and in his first year on the FOCUS staff.

“I joined the FOCUS staff because I met a missionary my senior year named Quinn. He was living a Christlike life. It was the first time I had seen a young person actually do that, actually live out their faith. It was a very attractive lifestyle. Previously, I had completely left the faith and was not involved with it whatsoever. Through this friendship with Quinn, I came back to it,” Mr. Castlen said.

“Gradually he kept pushing me more and more to go deeper in my faith, to take up daily prayer, community service, lead my own Bible study, start to lead other people in discipleship relationships. And I saw a great need and urgency for evangelization because there are so many students just like me who have fallen away from the faith or just don’t have it who are living very sad lives with no fulfillment. So when I had the opportunity to join staff, I was excited to do so. It’s my first year in Chattanooga. It’s amazing. I love it; lots of hiking, lots of stuff to do,” Mr. Castlen added.

Ms. Rabensteine is a 23-year-old lifelong Catholic who was raised in Knoxville and moved to Texas when she was in high school. She attended the University of Texas in Austin and is in her second year with FOCUS at UTC.

“I had an encounter with Christ in high school, and it made me come to college seeking to know Him more. But I really didn’t know how to live out that relationship, how to make daily prayer part of my life. I signed up for a FOCUS Bible study not knowing what FOCUS was at all. The missionaries I met, the students who were involved with it, they taught me so much about how to make Christ the center of my life. Through their guidance, I started attending daily Mass and praying a daily holy hour. Through that encounter with Jesus, He transformed my life and made me want to make Him known and loved by others. FOCUS, as well, taught me how to do that. They taught me that as a baptized Catholic, I am commissioned to fulfill what Christ came to do, which is to save the whole world. I fell in love with the beauty of their mission because it is focused on doing that in such a personal way, in a way where every single person is known, loved, cared for, and invited to be known, loved, and cared for by Christ and His Church,” Ms. Rabensteine said.

Mr. Douglas, 25, is from St. Louis and is a graduate of Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. The lifelong Catholic graduated with a degree in music. Last year, he served as a missionary at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

“FOCUS wasn’t really on my radar until my last semester of college. I met FOCUS missionaries on my campus. It was their very first semester at Lindenwood. They invited me to apply for staff,” Mr. Douglas recalled, saying that at first he thought he would give it a try, but then during his interview weekend he “fell in love” with the apostolate, specifically with the mission of the apostolate.

“FOCUS doesn’t just exist to be a campus ministry. What it really seeks to do is make lifelong, faithful disciples of Jesus. We just do that by going and meeting students where they are on the college campus. I really admired that. I recognize there is an urgency to reach the whole world for Christ. Stats will show that record numbers of people by college age—20, 22, 23 years old—are leaving the Church. FOCUS is a response to that urgency, and that’s why I fell in love with it,” Mr. Douglas added.

The UTC FOCUS missionaries share that sense of urgency, as do most all of their FOCUS peers, who typically are recent college graduates who devote two or more years of their post-collegiate lives to reach out to students on campus. And over the past 20 years, nearly 1,000 people have entered seminary or a religious house of formation after their involvement in FOCUS.

People are encouraged to make donations to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Newman Center and the FOCUS missionaries ministering there or St. John XXIII University Parish and Catholic Center on the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus and the FOCUS missionaries ministering there. Go to www.utccatholic.com or to volcatholic.org/focus.

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