UD welcomes FOCUS missionaries

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Photo by Helen Maier

This semester, a team of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries arrived on the University of Dallas campus, offering a new way for students to engage in their faith. 

The change is viewed by UD campus ministry as a promising addition to the spiritual formation they currently offer students.

FOCUS is a nation-wide Catholic collegiate outreach founded by Curtis Martin at Benedictine College in 1998. Over the past 22 years, FOCUS has spread to numerous public and private universities across the United States and hosts the conference SEEK, which provides the sacraments and moral guidance through a series of talks to young adults.

FOCUS missionaries are divided on a regional level into teams assigned to individual campuses. Bishop Edward J. Burns first approved the decision to bring FOCUS into the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Although FOCUS already has a large presence at nearby schools like the University of Texas at Dallas and Southwestern Methodist University, Bishop Burns encouraged UD to invite FOCUS on campus, an idea that President Thomas Hibbs supported.

Campus Minister Shelby Ponikiewski said that one of the reasons for the long absence of FOCUS at UD is that “It actually costs a lot of money to have FOCUS missionaries on campus.” 

“Universities who have FOCUS missionaries pay a certain amount of money and that’s to cover their housing and food,” Ponikiewski said. 

UD campus ministry was recently awarded a grant from the Scanlan Foundation, an organization dedicated to “the support of [Catholic] religious, charitable, and educational institutions and work within the State of Texas exclusively.” This grant enabled campus ministry to support the presence of a team of FOCUS missionaries for the first time.

There are five members on the UD FOCUS missionaries team: Rachel Zayas, Luke Cohen, Josie Soehnge, Payton Burnett and Alexander Tsatsoulas.

Rachel Zayas, the team director, and the other missionaries have met with UD Chaplain Fr. Thomas More Barba, O.P., director of campus ministry Fr. Joseph Paul Albin, O.P. and Ponikiewski to discuss the spiritual and emotional support they can offer to students. Their meetings made the FOCUS missionaries eager to continue working alongside the campus ministers, a feeling which is mutual in the campus ministry office.

“We’re really grateful for their help,” Ponikiewski said. “There are a lot of students we would hope to reach but are unable to reach because of time conflicts or different ministries.” 

Viewing the FOCUS missionaries as collaborative partners, Fr. Thomas More hopes they can “connect with students that fall through the cracks who don’t have a relationship with Jesus.”

Zayas and her team can more easily encounter the people that campus ministry is unable to reach with its limited resources.

These types of encounters with students have already begun to occur through FOCUS bible study groups led by the missionaries. 

More than 15 FOCUS bible study groups have been formed at UD since the semester started, according to Zayas, meeting physically or virtually every week to discuss Scripture.

As an example of the impact the FOCUS missionaries have had, think of the number of people who are able to attend a bible study group at their convenience thanks to their presence. UD campus ministry groups like Blessed is She and UD Men’s Society serve a limited number of people, being able to only meet virtually once a week with small group meetings in person. 

“They have that flexibility and freedom to go where we can’t,” Fr. Thomas More explained. The availability of multiple bible study groups for students is one benefit of having FOCUS at UD which is already apparent.

While cognizant of a possible online semester, Zayas is confident that FOCUS will continue to support students in their relationship with Christ in whatever form necessary. The time of social distancing “is a great opportunity to be creative in evangelization,” Zayas said.

Zayas is appreciative of the friendly reaction from students to the arrival of FOCUS at UD.

“UD is such a warm place,” Zayas said in an email. Despite the difficulty of evangelizing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Zayas and her team “have been blown away by the kindness of the UD student body, faculty and staff.”

Besides the formation of bible study groups, Zayas is planning different ways FOCUS can nourish the faithful UD student body in the midst of the pandemic. 

Students interested in joining a bible study group or with general inquiries about FOCUS events are encouraged to contact Rachel Zayas at 713-240-0913 or rachel.zayas@focus.org.

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