Campus ministers put FOCUS on missionary discipleship

Fellowship of Catholic University Students serve UW-Oshkosh students

OSHKOSH — Leading college and university students to lives of purpose and missionary discipleship is the goal of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

FOCUS started in 1998 and has more than 660 missionaries on 137 college campuses, including four in Wisconsin: UW-Oshkosh, UW-Madison, UW-La Crosse and UW-Platteville.

Sarah Knopik, second from left, one of five FOCUS missionaries at UW-Oshkosh, joins a group of UW-Oshkosh students gather for a Bible study Nov. 14 at the Newman Center. From left: Beth Pokorny, Knopik, Sarah Gargano, Emma Wills and Shannon Wagner. (Jeannette Merten | For The Compass)

“We strive to live out the Great Commission that Jesus gave us before he ascended into heaven,” said Sarah Knopik, one of five FOCUS missionaries at UW-Oshkosh.

Knopik said the organization’s collegiate outreach activities are transforming, both for the missionaries and the students they serve.

“On campus, we reach out to college students, getting to know them, bringing them into a real friendship,” she said. “As their hearts become more open, we are introducing them to a relationship with Jesus and his church. It’s true friendship, sharing the joy of life. It’s truly living out the Great Commission that Jesus gave us by investing in college students. We’re being formed into the saints that we are called to be.”

As part of her outreach, Knopik said that she creates relationships with students by spending time with them in such activities as hiking, reading, doing homework together, games, Bible studies and just sitting and having a conversation.

“As we go deeper, we pray together and have higher standards of virtue,” she said.

Knopik leads two of FOCUS’s Bible study groups at the campus Newman Center. These small gatherings of two to 10 members allow them all to “grow in fellowship and as sisters and brothers to share our faith,” she said.

FOCUS missionaries connect well with college and university students because every missionary has a college degree, said Knopik, who earned her degree in criminal justice from North Dakota State University. It was in Fargo, N.D., where she first got involved with FOCUS.

“They really challenged me to live out my (faith) and identify as a loving child of God,” she said.

While on a mission trip with FOCUS, “my life was transformed,” she said. “When the Lord called and invited me to be his missionary, I said, ‘Yes.’ The Lord is creating leaders in this generation for future generations. It’s changing lives.”

This is the second year on the UW-Oshkosh campus, and Knopik is continuing to grow in friendship with students there.

Katie Seim, a junior from Brookfield, discovered FOCUS while she was a student at the University of Nebraska. She was so impressed with the organization and its missionaries that she immediately reached out to FOCUS after she transferred to UW-Oshkosh.

“I think they do an amazing job of reaching out to college students — who may not be very strong in their faith — and helping them with that process,” Seim said. “They grow in friendship with you, coming closer to God and growing in their faith alongside you.”

Seim, who is studying human service leadership at UW-Oshkosh, said Bible studies have proven to be a great way for her to meet people on campus, particularly other Catholics. “We’re friends outside of Bible study, too,” she said. “It’s great to be surrounded by people who are striving to grow in faith and virtue, and knowing that they’re striving to put God at the center of their lives. We all have the same end goal.”

She also appreciates the examples set by the FOCUS missionaries. “The conviction they have is really inspiring, and to be able to share that with other people is really cool.”

Emma Wills, a sophomore from Sheboygan, has been involved with FOCUS during her two years on campus. “I had just gotten into college and was nervous about making friendships,” she said. When she saw notices to sign up for Bible studies, she thought that would be a good way to meet people.

“Bible studies have given me a new appreciation for reading the Bible, and I have met so many awesome people,” she said. “It’s an awesome way to grow in my faith, and it’s a cornerstone of my life now. I think there’s something so powerful about getting to know Jesus and growing with each other and getting each other to heaven.”

She said she has been particularly inspired by Knopik’s favorite saying: “We’re all called to be saints.”

“I’d never thought about it like that,” Wills said. “It changed the focus of my life. It’s mind-boggling and super-inspirational at the same time. “Even if you’re not super-religious, they love you and hold you up. It builds community and you really learn about God.”

Knopik said this is what she strives for. “We’re all living out our lives as disciples,” she said. “It’s really important to understand we are living out our Catholic identity. It is living out the church’s teaching in the fullest way.”