Meeting People Halfway

I recently had the privilege of visiting communities in Idaho that are supported by Catholic Extension.  The Catholic community is spread across a diocese spanning the entire state of Idaho.  Catholics represent only about 11% of the population and many of the communities are rural and working class who are struggling in the wake of this uncertain economy.  Needless to say, it’s a bit of a challenge to create a vibrant church experience in these circumstances.  Yet, everywhere I went in Idaho I encountered passionate Catholics who are deeply committed to the faith, doing their absolute best to reach marginalized populations, and generate growth in the Church.

I visited St. Jerome parish in southern Idaho, where Catholic Extension provides support for pastoral programs.  This is a bi-cultural parish that has done an excellent job of figuring out how to welcome everybody.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

Just ten years ago, their Sunday Mass attracted no more than 300 people.  But today, Mass is attended by 1,500 people, including families that drive as far as 70 miles to get there every week.

The parish offers religious education in two languages to hundreds of children, and classrooms are packed to capacity.   “We used to have very small classes,” said Katie, the director of religious education who grew up in the parish, “This year we got to the number 300 and I thought, ‘what are we going to do with all these kids?’”  Parishioners acknowledge that this type of logistical issue is in fact a blessing.

Fr. Ron, the pastor, said that “We just try to meet people halfway.”

This mentality of ‘meeting people halfway’ is at the heart of St. Jerome’s effort to feed hundreds of people and families on a weekly basis out of the parish food pantry.

St. Jerome Parish food pantry.

St. Jerome parish food pantry, Martha & Mary's.

This spirit of welcome also drives their work with local teenagers, many of whom are facing hard decisions about drugs and gangs.   A young adult named Gio, who works with the 60+ members of the youth group, had his share of struggles as a teen growing up in Jerome, Idaho.  But one parish retreat called “Come and See” changed his life so much so, that thereafter he committed himself to bringing moral strength and faith to today’s young people who face the same challenges that he once did.

Up the road two hours, I paid a visit to St. Paul’s Newman Center at Boise State University, where Catholic Extension has provided operations support for the past several years.  There too, I learned about all the ways that this ministry is ‘meeting people halfway.’

The worn out, orange carpeting and the musty couches with out-of-style patterns that adorn this facility would suggest that this campus ministry has seen better days.  However, the opposite is true.  This ministry’s impact continues to increase.   I met a group of students over lunch that seemed to have just as much confidence talking about their Catholic faith as they did discussing their beloved university football team.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

At least three students shared similar stories about how Catholicism had never been a part of their lives growing up.  But, they were invited to St. Paul’s Newman Center by their peers and have decided to become fully practicing Catholics after experiencing the joy of this faith community.

As many as 12 of the approximately 300 students who are part of St. Paul’s Newman Center are currently considering vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We met a young woman who came into the Church at Easter Vigil in 2009 through St. Paul’s RCIA program.  She is now seriously discerning a vocation to religious life and credits the supportive faith community of St. Paul with giving her the courage to do so.

When the Church meets people where they are at, it increases its ability to reach more.  The Catholic communities in Boise have figured this out and used this wisdom to their advantage.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension

An Invitation to Gather: OSU Campus Ministry

We arrived at St. John the Evangelist University Parish and Newman Center, at Oklahoma State University, at 8AM. OSU has had a relationship with Catholic Extension since 1977; and this coming January, the OSU Campus Ministry will be receiving another grant from Catholic Extension. But we were also eager to meet these dynamic college students to see if we could connect them with leadership roles in the Church after graduation.

Our plan was to meet with Fr. Stuart Crevcoure and some of his campus ministry staff, as well as some of the college students who are active in campus ministry at OSU. I had my doubts as to how many students would show up for an 8AM meeting! Remembering my own college days, anything before 9AM was considered to be the crack of dawn.

Fr. Stuart Crevcoure and Fr. Jack Wall, with some of the students who are active in Campus Ministry at OSU.

Yet when we arrived, there were 15 college students already there! Not only were they awake, but they were smiling and eager to welcome us. Just their presence at that breakfast meeting was a witness to how important their Catholic faith is to them. Yet as we listened to their stories, we were even more moved by their passion for their faith and their desire to share their faith with other students at OSU.

The Newman Center sponsors a vast number of opportunities for faith sharing and fellowship: they have Bible Study, Rosary, Wednesday night Mass, and Praise and Worship to name a few. But what’s more incredible is the number of students who come every Sunday night for Mass, followed by dinner. They told us that a couple hundred students show up every week and that number grows during the school year! Many of the students who come aren’t even Catholic but have been invited by friends.

That’s what ran through all of the students’ stories about how they got involved with Campus Ministry at OSU – someone had invited them. Michael, a freshman from Wichita, said, “When I started here a few weeks ago, Anna, who is also from my home town, invited me to come along to Mass and so I did.” Many of the students credited Jenny, a senior, as having called them and asked them to come with her to Mass. To be invited, to be called by name, is so important to all of us, but it’s crucial for young adults. They need to feel welcomed, that their being there matters. It starts with being in relationship with others, making a friend, and then inviting that friend to come share in the faith that you have found. That was the model Jesus gave us, and these students are still following it. Every student there credited another student with getting them involved in Campus Ministry. Many students also mentioned Kelly, a former seminarian who is now ordained, as the reason they are so active in their faith.

Jenny and other students active in Campus Ministry at OSU.

A lot of the students told us about growing up in rural parts of Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas, where they were a part of the only Catholic family in town. I’m from the Northeast, where there are large numbers of Catholics, so it was foreign to me to imagine what it would be like to grow up in the minority, in a place where you weren’t invited to certain events because you were Catholic. But what struck me was that it was that experience of being in the minority that made these young Catholic men and women stronger in their faith, more articulate about what they believe in, more eager to be in community with others who shared their faith. They even volunteered to staff an “Ask a Catholic” table outside the student center at OSU, so that they could invite other students to learn about their faith.

Andrew received his Confirmation while attending OSU this year.

Many people talk about the young people being the future of our church. But in reality, they are the church. Right here, right now. It is up to us to do whatever we can to help support young adults like these students at OSU, so that they can grow in their faith while they are in college; and so that they are able to continue to grow in their faith after graduation, as young adults. Fr. Stuart pointed out to us a large tree that they had painted on their wall, with paper leaves attached to it. Each leaf had the name of a student who had been baptized or confirmed over the past year. Through Catholic Extension, we can help the number of leaves on that tree grow, at OSU and at other colleges across the country.

— Terry Witherell, National Representative for Strategic Initiatives, Catholic Extension