What I’ve learned from my family’s decision to become FOCUS missionaries

Last spring, I asked my husband if he had, once again, considered the call to full-time mission life. He smiled and reminded me that he had just received a promotion at work and, even if he had been considering it (which in his heart of hearts, he had), the window for application to FOCUS (The Fellowship of Catholic University Students) was likely long over. The conversation ended there, but we both quietly continued to ponder the “what if” that had been tugging on our hearts for some time.

Not quite a year and a half before that, as newlyweds, we had discerned becoming FOCUS missionaries. The Lord made it clear that it was not the time for us, however, when we received an offer from FOCUS and a positive pregnancy test on the same day. Our baby would be due the same month that we would have to move and start work on campus. With that sweetest gift of new life, the Lord, we thought, had told us “no.” Truly, though, he had been telling us “not yet.”

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Two days after that brief conversation with my husband, a FOCUS staff member asked us if we had considered becoming missionaries again. There would be one final recruitment weekend and, if we felt called to do so, we could reapply and attend. After a few weeks of very intentional (and very, at times, confusing) prayer and discernment, we went to our second recruitment weekend — this time with a seven-month-old in tow. As before, joy permeated our hearts during those few days surrounded by so many faithful men and women who desired only to do the Father’s will. “Now is the time,” the Lord told us. So, in April, we accepted positions as FOCUS missionaries.

Despite the many reasons our decision could be seen as absolutely mad, the pure peace that comes from doing God’s will reigned in our hearts and in our home. As my husband quit his job, as we packed up for a month of training and fundraising, as we boxed up our beloved little Colorado apartment, we remained joyfully convicted that the Lord wanted to use our family in this way. Though we had entered a new state in life, my husband and I felt completely drawn to the FOCUS mission of sharing the Gospel with university students. In college, my husband and I both experienced deeper conversions, which were influenced by the loving witness of young, Christ-centered families. In them, we had seen the happiness that naturally flowed from intimacy with Christ and a zealous desire to build one’s life around his love. As a young married couple, we wanted to emulate that closeness with and centeredness on Christ in our own little family. Through FOCUS, we simply wanted to share the love and joy that we had found.

The transition

God’s grace does not preclude obstacles, and we faced quite a few in the transition from our rather ordinary life in Colorado to life on mission in North Carolina. As we unloaded the U-Haul in classic southern humidity, there were waves of homesickness for the mountains, the memories and the people we had left behind. There was confusion as we tried to navigate new schedules, a new town and a totally new way of life. Three years removed from university life, we suddenly found ourselves thrust back into a college town, an academic calendar and the wild daily schedule of college students (how anyone can wake up at noon and stay up past midnight remains a mystery to me). For the first few weeks, it felt as if my husband and I were seeing each other long enough to say “hello” and then “goodbye” again. I struggled to discover my role as a “part-time” missionary and frequently felt overwhelmed as I tried to say “yes” to the happenings on campus while still leaning into my ultimate role as a full-time mother. Through it all, though, God was working, fashioning our hearts into those of more docile disciples, aligning our wills more closely to his, gently tugging free the chains of attachments, and revealing to us a deeper freedom that came from giving him not just a complete “yes” but an exuberant “yes.”

Then, one day, it seemed that we suddenly resurfaced, breathed in deeply, and could only praise God for the many blessings that had flooded our lives and the lives of those around us. Deep in discernment the previous spring, I had, over and over, read from Malachi: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, and see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven for you, and pour down upon you blessing without measure!” (3:10). He is faithful. He poured out the grace upon us so that we could bring our tithe into the storehouse and put him to the test.

And soon after, he opened those floodgates. He brought us to a lovely little home with a backyard big enough for a chicken coop and a front yard big enough for tailgates. He brought students to us, whose hearts had already been kindled by his love; they were open and eager to hear the Good News. He brought us generous donors who selflessly gave so that we could serve these students that they had never met (and may never meet). He surrounded us with so many beautiful people — the sort of people that fill your cup, gladden your soul and ever so lovingly tug you higher. He gave us delight in the work to which he had called us.

Our days are busy and our life, to many, is rather unconventional (and maybe even a little odd). But every morning when we slide into the pew behind our sweet teammates for Mass, every time my daughter gleefully dives into the open arms of a student (she loves them, and they love her), every evening that our house is filled with women in Bible study or students over for dinner, and every time I see my husband deep in loving, honest conversation with a student, I am reminded of the generosity of God. He has allowed us a beautiful opportunity to serve in this way. He has also, through this mission, deepened our understanding of the Christian life.

A call to evangelization

I once believed that only a select few were called to the work of evangelization. The rest of us, I thought, were simply called to lead quiet lives of holiness, focused on our own sanctification and that of our dearest friends and family members. Stepping into mission work has completely uprooted that false belief from within my heart.

In 1992, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the USCCB) composed a document entitled “Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States.” In it, the authors present a beautiful view of how we are all called to bring others to Christ: “The Gospel must overflow from each heart until the presence of God transforms all human existence. Sometimes this means that, as believers, we must confront the world as did the prophets of old. … More often, however, this means that we must let our faith shine on the world around us, radiating the love of Jesus by the everyday way we speak, think, and act” (No. 17).

When we first stepped into FOCUS, I suffered a terrifying feeling of inadequacy. Far from possessing the mind of a theologian, I felt that I was not equipped to do the work of evangelization. However, I soon came to understand that sharing Christ with others does not require a Ph.D. in theology. It does not even require eloquence, charisma or unwavering self-confidence. To convey the truth of the Gospel, one must simply know it and believe it. To share the love of Christ, one must experience it. To invite others into the Faith, one must live it. Of course, all of this does necessitate studying Church doctrine, reading encyclicals and spiritual texts, and constantly pursuing greater formation via catechesis and the sacraments. But, above all else, one must have an intimate relationship with Christ. For from that divine intimacy flows all love, knowledge, truth, goodness and zeal for growing the kingdom.

In conversation with a dear friend of ours one evening, my husband and I confided that we weren’t sure that we were evangelizing well or effectively. Our friend replied that what we had only to open our home to others — to invite them into our messy life of love, our faults and failings, and our little way of striving for sanctity. It didn’t matter if there were stuffed animals and picture books on the floor and unwashed mixing bowls and tea cups on the counters. The home is a sacred place for it can be a most excellent foreshadowing of our eternal home in heaven. What’s more, the family, by its very nature, images the love of the Trinity. Therefore, by simply inviting students into our home and into our family, the Gospel is indeed being shared in a quiet, yet comforting and impactful way.

Whether my husband and I remain with FOCUS for one more year or 10 more years, our life on mission will never end. Our desire to share Christ with others has only increased since starting full-time mission work. It is our hope that, in all chapters of our lives, we will radiate the love of Jesus and, thereby, invite others into this beautiful journey toward heaven. We don’t have all of the answers. We are still stumbling along. We are so far from perfect. All we can do is open our doors and our hearts and share with others the love that Jesus has lavished upon us and tell of the love that he longs to lavish upon them.

FOCUS started as a small apostolate in 1998 and now has nearly 800 missionaries serving at over 200 locations throughout the world. Read more about it here.

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