by Olivia Martin
LAWRENCE — Ever since his undergraduate years at the University of Kansas here, Father Mitchel Zimmerman has been in deep debt.
And this debt has nothing to do with money.
“I owe the St. Lawrence Center everything,” said Father Zimmerman. “It will always be the place that changed my life probably more dramatically than any Catholic church.”
St. Lawrence is KU’s Catholic student center, which sits atop a hill at the edge of campus. The center was where Father Zimmerman’s faith first exploded — where he discovered his calling to the priesthood and where he has been serving as chaplain and director since 2016.
Throughout the years, he has seen many changes at St. Lawrence, not least of which is the change in students from generation to generation.
But there’s something that hasn’t changed.
St. Lawrence Center continues to reach students exactly where they are with the time-resilient message of the church: Christ is present, accessible and loves each person individually.
Ministering to Gen Z
Sharing the faith with people is never easy, no matter the generation.
But the current generation of college students, Gen Z, presents a challenge all its own.
Gen Z is the first generation that does not know what life was like before cellphones and the internet — Gen Z-ers were born roughly between 1996 and 2010.
“The challenge is that this generation has been advertised to and sold to their entire lives,” said Father Zimmerman. “You literally have to earn the right to be heard, and that’s through being generous and vulnerable yourself and asking them about themselves . . . and what they care about.”
Father Zimmerman also noted that Gen Z students struggle with isolation and are not as resilient as previous generations. But they are honest and desire human relationships.
“I love this generation of college students,” he said. “But what we’ve found is that the vast majority of people don’t feel like they belong to the Catholic Church or don’t feel they need anything the Catholic Church has to offer.”
That’s where the center comes in.
“We’ve spent a lot of time the last few years really trying to create a culture here at the St. Lawrence Center where everybody has a reason to belong to the Catholic Church,” said Father Zimmerman.
And it shows.
When Mark Loftus was a freshman at KU, becoming involved with his Catholic faith was the last thing on his mind.
“I didn’t really consider it too much a part of my identity,” said Loftus, now a junior. “The attraction to go and get involved with another Catholic organization wasn’t that great for me.”
But during fall 2018, Loftus heard the center was taking a fall break mission trip to Mexico City.
He thought it seemed like a good opportunity to help others and it would look good on medical school applications.
Besides, he had no other plans.
“I ended up going and met really, really great people on that trip,” said Loftus. “They really intentionally, genuinely wanted me to be around and they wanted to know me.
“I hadn’t felt that at college yet.”
That winter, he attended the SEEK FOCUS conference in Indianapolis and has been involved at St. Lawrence ever since.
And because of those experiences, Loftus sees the faith differently now.
“I think one of the biggest problems is people have a lot of . . . preconceived notions about what the church believes, based on what the secular world tells them religion believes,” he said.
In his own experience, Loftus found that many notions about the church often stem from not understanding the reasons behind the church’s teachings.
And he appreciates that, while St. Lawrence does teach solid theology and catechesis, it comes second to evangelizing through encounter — that is, by getting to know the students.
“They try to make you feel the love of Christ first,” said Loftus, “even if they never get across the point that they’re with the St. Lawrence Center.”
Brenna Dillon, a junior at KU from Overland Park, did not expect to have any family on campus.
But that quickly changed when she started going to the center.
“The St. Lawrence Center has truly become my family in college,” said Dillon. And, just like a family, it has been there for her through thick and thin.
“One of my best friends passed away in a car accident in May, and the people to rescue me from the pain [were those at] the St. Lawrence Center,” she said. “They truly are the biggest advocates for me to get to heaven.”
This year, Loftus and Dillon are helping to lead RISE at the campus center, a monthly night of prayer and worship accompanied by a talk that pertains to living the faith as a student.
“I’m looking forward to diving deeper into my faith and . . . getting a better understanding of who Jesus is,” said Dillon.
For Loftus, he is looking forward to not being the new kid at the center anymore.
“This year, I am established and I’m a presence there,” he said. “It will be nice to finally have [that support] going into all aspects of college life.”
Ultimately, the St. Lawrence Center educates in its own way, serving to school students on how to encounter others as Christ.
“[The center] makes you feel loved,” said Loftus. “It makes you feel welcome. You feel you have a home.”