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Jayhawker evangelization

Red Tuesday changes the way KU students think about their faith

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

LAWRENCE — On a recent Tuesday, University of Kansas freshman Leann Tracy was racing across campus so as not to be late for her art class. As she blazed down the sidewalk in a flash of red, no one could miss the large block letters on the back of her shirt that spelled out “Ask me why I’m Catholic.”

Tracy wears the shirt every Tuesday. When asked why, her answer is unequivocal: “Because it’s starting a revolution!”

And she’s right. KU is indeed undergoing a revolution of sorts – Catholic students are taking their message to the streets.

In this, a formidably secular environment, Catholic students find their faith challenged on all sorts of fronts. But now there is a sanctuary, a home base, where they can turn for answers to the many questions college classes — and even college life — give rise to.

It’s the Red Tuesday table hosted by the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center, and it’s changing the way KU students think about faith, God, salvation, their world, their future and Catholicism.

An open invitation

When outreach and evangelization co-ordinator Jennifer Meitl joined the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center last July, she was charged with getting the center out onto the campus and increasing awareness of the Catholic presence at the university.

Center director Father Steve Beseau had heard of a program at Texas A&M University where students wore T-shirts that invited others to “Ask a Catholic a Question.”

“I brought the idea to [the staff for discussion],” he said. “I thought it was a very non-threatening way of evangelization, and I liked that.”

The center staff liked it, too, but decided to tweak the question in order to provide more opportunity for personal witness. They then had bright red T-shirts printed up, with the center’s logo on the front and “Ask me why I’m Catholic” on the back.

Meitl then arranged for the campus center to host a table each Tuesday at Wesco Beach, a centrally located area on campus, and word soon spread that Catholic students should wear red on Tuesdays. The second day of the school week quickly became known on campus as “Red Tuesday.”

“We asked all the students to wear red and keep us in their prayers,” said Meitl, “so they would be in solidarity with us, even if they were unable to stop by the table.”

For those unfamiliar with the campus, Wesco Beach is a traditional news hub for KU students. Messages promoting different events and ideas are scrawled in colorful chalk on every inch of the sidewalk. Clubs and organization are permitted to set up tables to promote their agenda, and students tend to gather in droves between classes — so much so that a hot dog vendor can make a decent living there.

Now, every Tuesday, in the middle of it all, Catholics dressed in every shade of red — from pink to dark maroon — are fielding questions about morality, abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, contraception, the Trinity, homosexuality, purgatory and salvation — just to name a few.

In one 10-minute span, a young atheist asked why Catholics do not consider themselves polytheists; another asked how, if extraterrestrial life was found to exist, Catholics would account for its creation; and freshman Kristan Smith approached the table with a question she’d been contemplating since Easter break.

“When the firstborn sons were struck dead in those families that had not shared the Passover meal and sprinkled blood on the doorposts, how come the pharaoh was not killed?” she said. “I thought to become a pharaoh, you had to be firstborn.”

Usually about half the questions concern faith in general; the other half are questions specifically about Catholicism. 

Some are tougher than others — like the one from a Muslim student trying to understand how a human Mary can be the mother of God. Others are far less challenging, like the student who walked up and said simply, “I’ve got a question for Catholics: What’s your favorite candy bar?”

The questioners are as diverse as their questions, ranging from devout Catholics to cynical atheists, and include students and professors alike. Even the hot dog vendor occasionally comes over to dialogue for a while.

Living the lesson

The table is manned by a combination of St. Lawrence staff and Catholic students attending catechetical theology classes at the center. Several Sisters, members of the Apostles of the Interior Life, regularly join the group, and sometimes even priests are available to stop by and answer a few questions as well.

“One thing we try to focus on at St. Lawrence,” said Matt Kemnitz, director of formation at the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center, “is that we’re all together on the same mission and unified.

“The Sisters are seasoned evangelists and fan out around the table approaching students in the crowd. The rest of the staff answer questions when needed, but often stand back and let the students take the lead.”

“You want to be a witness [yourself],” added Kemnitz, “but your job is to help form [the students], build them up and equip them. I think the witness of the stu- dents is more powerful than getting the fully comprehensive answer.”

“That’s why we have our catechetical classes here,” added Father Beseau. “The students are coming in and they don’t know their faith when they get here. So we have these classes where they can learn their faith, and they’re able to put that into practice immediately.”

Initially, the students are usually reluctant to try to answer questions.

“Probably the first week or two I was kind of hesitant and just kind of standing off to the side, while Matt or Jennifer were talking to lots of people,” said Danny Noonan, a graduate student who tries to join the table every Tuesday. “But as it’s gone on, more and more, it’s natural to answer questions.”

Meitl and Kemnitz also try to emphasize to the students the role God plays in their evangelization efforts.

“It’s not about us showing our knowledge,” explained Kemnitz. “God works through us and we try to make sure we’re humble in that fact and know that we are just instruments for the greater plan that he laid out and called us to be active in.”

Building community

By any measure, Red Tuesday has been a phenomenal success. Thirsty for knowledge, college students are sometimes finding their classes are leaving them with more questions than answers.

An open invitation to dialogue in the heart of campus is, well, a godsend.

“We’re really amazed at the amount of discussion of religion on a secular campus,” said Father Beseau. “It’s brought into classes all the time. What’s even more amazing is how misunderstood the Catholic Church is. And it’s not even a difference of opinion — it’s just factually wrong what these professors are literally pontificating on in the classroom.”

“One afternoon a student had just gotten out of a philosophy class and was just dejected,” recalled Kemnitz. “He told me his philosophy professor had just explained how there’s no God, and nobody disagreed with him.

“I said, ‘Hey, do you want to grab some lunch quick?’ So I took him to lunch and was able to be there for him at a pivotal moment.”

“KU is often a place of darkness,” said Tracy, “and I think St. Lawrence Center has a glimpse of what is light. To be able to take that out of the center every Tuesday and share it with other people is incredible.”

Catholics are not only sharing the light with students of different faiths, but also with each other — to a degree that has surprised the center staff.

“Fellowship and community building for the Catholics is something we didn’t see happening to this great degree,” said Kemnitz. “I did not expect our Catholics to hang out there, as many and as long as they are. I thought they might stop by for a little bit, but now it has become a little sanctuary.”

“We get maybe three to five students who aren’t Catholic at our table every week,” said Meitl. “But we get 20 to 25 students who are Catholic stopping by. So the community building is huge.”

“You can socialize with people you know who are involved with the St. Lawrence Center and meet new people as well,” said Noonan. “There are people who come up who didn’t even realize there was a Catholic center on campus.”

The brightest color

Father Beseau said Red Tuesday’s success has far exceeded his expectations. It has satisfied the goal of bringing visibility to the St. Lawrence Center. But it has also proven a great teaching and sharing tool and has built community among Catholic students who are growing in faith as they witness to others. “Campus ministry on a secular campus is probably one of the best-kept secrets in the church,” he said. “This is where 90 percent of our future parents, teachers, and priests are coming through.

“There are still a lot of young people out there that haven’t turned against the faith as much as they never learned it or experienced it. This is an opportunity for us to invite people to come back or to learn more.”

The St. Lawrence Center seems to have hit on the perfect formula for bringing God’s message to the college campus.

“I look around KU and it’s a colorful campus — the trees are all bright and full of color,” said Tracy.

“But definitely the brightest color on Tuesdays is red,” she concluded. “It’s beautiful.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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