Winning souls only takes some FOCUS
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LAWRENCE — It’s a typical Thursday evening at the University of Kanas Sigma Nu house here, and Derek Lyssy is hanging around with the guys and talking about sex.
If that’s not surprising to you, this might be: They each have a Bible and are taking turns reading chapter seven of the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
At a sorority house nearby, Emily Brenner is hosting a similar group. Lyssy and Brenner, both graduates of Benedictine College in Atchison, are missionaries with Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), St. Lawrence Campus Center’s newest partner in the evangelization of KU.
And they’re bringing students into the Catholic Church, one Bible study at a time.
Though he graduated from college last year, Lyssy still fits right in at the frat house. He’s handsome, athletic and sociable.
And that’s why FOCUS chose him to be a missionary at KU.
“I specifically work with Greeks,” he said, “and Emily specifically works with Greeks.”
As anyone who’s been there can tell you, Greek life dominates KU.
“And the lifestyle that is encouraged is Greek life,” said Lyssy. “That takes the lead on campus here, so it’s kind of like we’re going to the heart.”
Having just been through the college experience, Lyssy knows many young people arrive there expecting to “find themselves.”
“But what happens is there’s no rules whatsoever,” he said. “You have alcohol, sex and drugs and all these other influences easily available.”
But those influences, said Lyssy, have no place on a student’s journey to self- awareness.
“That is not how you find yourself,” he said. “Finding yourself means control- ling those desires and using them for the good.
“Finding yourself means finding your purpose, your true meaning, why God has put you here.”
Lyssy’s mother, Holy Trinity, Lenexa, parishioner Terry Lyssy, heard about FOCUS through her son’s involvement in it and is amazed at the impact the group is having on college campuses.
“I don’t know if people understand what a crisis it is — the percentage of college students that fall away from the faith and what these guys are doing to turn that around,” she said.
FOCUS began its evangelization efforts on Benedictine College’s campus just over a decade ago. Since then, it has grown from four missionaries on one campus to more than 260 missionaries serving nearly 60 campuses in 28 states across the nation.
Lyssy first got involved with FOCUS as a student at Benedictine. He graduated with a degree in business administration and entertained other job opportunities.
“But I just decided maybe I should give back for a couple of years,” he said. “I felt God was calling me to be a missionary.”
His parents supported his decision.
“When he came home and he was sharing this with us,” said his mother, “I saw the passion in his face and heard it through his heart.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty incredible.’”
“My parents are very faith-filled,” said Lyssy. “They’re sold out for the faith and they know the mission of the church is to evangelize — in whatever capacity we can, wherever we are in life.”
But there was one part of being a missionary that his mother was a little con- cerned about.
“There’s no stipend that FOCUS gives us,” explained Lyssy. “We fundraise our salaries completely.”
Missionaries raise funds by inviting people to become their mission partners through pledges of monetary support.
“He has to go into peoples’ homes and say, ‘Can you support me to do God’s work?’” explained his mother. “To me, that is the most grueling sales training you can go through.”
Lyssy said his education in business helped his campaign for funds. His mother was impressed with his attitude.
“What if you don’t get enough money?” she once asked.
“You’ve got to trust in God, Mom,” he answered.
“He just trusts that God will provide, and I’m kind of blown away by that,” she said.
So far, said Lyssy, the experience has been incredible.
“It’s been extremely freeing — just relying on God for everything,” he said.
Back to college
FOCUS missionaries have no say in where they’re placed. Their only guarantee is that they won’t end up at the college from which they graduated.
Lyssy was placed at KU along with Brenner, Betsy Helow, a Mississippi University graduate, and Mike Guen- ther, their team director, who graduated from Nebraska University and was a KU FOCUS missionary last year.
“This is only our second year here,” said Guenther. “Saint Lawrence brought FOCUS in because they wanted a big push for evangelization.”
The team works closely with the St. Lawrence Center, but also operates separately. Missionaries evangelize on campus by engaging students in conversation and inviting them to Bible studies.
“Our team will go out on campus at least once a week and try to start conversations,” explained Guenther.
“I would probably say half the people I talk to are open to listening and talking a little bit,” said Lyssy. “And in the [fraternity] house with the guys, I’m received extremely well, thanks be to God.”
Bible studies are the missionaries’ way to develop relationships with students.
“Some non-Catholics might feel threatened coming into a Catholic church,” explained Guenther; whereas there is just a little less pressure if you invite them to a Bible study.
“It’s a great bridge into a bigger community like the St. Lawrence Center,” he added.
FOCUS supplies Bible study materials, including a topic, what Scripture passages to use, questions and the answers.
“So that makes it super simple for anyone to lead,” said Guenther.
As Bible study groups expand and grow, FOCUS missionaries train student leaders to take over.
“When we pick a student leader,” explained Guenther, “we enter a relationship we call discipleship.
“At least each week, we’re going to meet with them, share and invest ourselves in whatever they might need — encouragement, prayer, or advice on how to approach a friend.”
Spreading the word
Lyssy has groups at Sigma Nu and Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity houses.
“Once I get them established,” he said, “I’m discipling a couple of guys in there.
“And once they feel like they’re ready, they can take over that Bible study.”
As more student leaders are taking over, Bible studies are popping up all over the KU campus.
“Right now, we have 16 student leaders and 10 of them now are leading Bible studies on campus. And the missionaries continue to lead their Bible studies,” said Guenther.
But in the end, it’s all God’s work.
“As a missionary, you can’t make anybody do anything,” said Lyssy. “So it is strictly Jesus.
“They’re opening their hearts to him and the Gospel message, and they are changing.
“It’s incredible to watch it happen.”
In addition to evangelizing on campus, leading Bible studies, and doing one-on-one mentorships and discipleships, missionaries organize various events and mission trips to give students opportunities for fellowship.
The team lives side by side in a duplex just off campus — girls on one side; boys on the other.
“We have team time and spend time with each other,” said Lyssy.
Every missionary is also required to have a mentor within FOCUS, typically an experienced missionary on a different campus.
“We’re required to talk with them once every two weeks and try to meet with them every month,” said Lyssy.
The tipping point
FOCUS is making a difference at KU and at college campuses across the nation.
“I think we are the tipping point,” said Lyssy. “We are the head of the new evangelization in the United States. We are truly spreading the Gospel.
“They had their first FOCUS confer- ence ten years ago in Denver; they had a couple of hundred students. They’re expecting 6,000 students at the conference in Orlando (Fla.) next Christmas break.”
“It gives me hope — seeing what FOCUS does,” said Lyssy’s mother. “Hope for our future, hope for these young people.”
FOCUS has also been the starting point of hundreds of religious vocations in the last 12 years. But the missionaries are interested in more than vocations.
“We want to have good families,” said Lyssy. “We want these kids to get married and raise good Catholic kids who are convicted and believe in Jesus Christ and the Gospel message and want to go out and change the world for him.
“And that’s what we’re doing. This is happening right now, and people need to know about it.”