Hippo costumes, freezer pop-eating contests, Chipotle barbecues and the Catholic faith are not readily associated with each other.
But this year at the Newman Catholic Student Center, four young missionaries are marketing Catholicism with Chipotle to promote Mass attendance among Catholic students on campus.
“We want to show students that it is possible to be young, Catholic, fun and devout,” said Lauren Clark, a member of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionary organization. “We have been unafraid and outrageous in proving that point.”
The organization focuses on national outreach to invite students “into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith,” according to the group’s website.
Clark and fellow FOCUS missionaries Dan Grossano, Becca Mullan and John Sollee are all recent college graduates who have put their daily lives aside for their commitments to Catholicism.
The Newman Center raised $50,000 to bring FOCUS to GW, the organization’s requisite campus fee.
Andrew Buonopane, president of the Newman Center, said the center raised the money with the help of donors from the local Catholic community.
FOCUS’ goals are to raise weekly Mass attendance from 120 students to 600 and to increase the number of Bible study groups from four to 10.
One of FOCUS’ tactics has been dressing up its representatives as GW’s unofficial mascot, the hippo, and standing outside of Thurston Hall, with the point of engaging students.
“[We need to] take a religion that is seen as something that is somber, rigid and strict, and reach out to people to show them that it’s really about friendship and faith,” she said.
Mullan, another missionary, said the hope is that FOCUS will bring positive attention to the Newman Center as well as bring Catholic students closer to God and to the Roman Catholic Church.
Already, the group has started new Bible study groups for GW athletes and for women involved in Greek-letter life. Attendance at the Newman Center’s free Tuesday night dinners has increased attendance from 60 to about 100 participants.
Buonopane said the group has been very successful at relating to students and incorporating them into campus ministry.
“I’ve met students here, happy students, whose faith plays to who they are,” Buonopane said. “Catholicism isn’t a chain on them or a security blanket or anything like that, but instead a calling for joy.”
“I know that the FOCUS group can send that same message out to other members of the GW Catholic community,” he added.
This year, FOCUS placed missionaries at 50 different colleges in 27 states and the District, according to its website. Members train for five weeks in order to prepare for missionary life. FOCUS requires a two-year commitment from missionaries, which does not have to be served at the same school. They are also asked to refrain from romantic activities for the first year they are part of the organization, including dating, in order to be fully available to students.
“I had to decide between being an investment banker and earning $60,000 this year or joining FOCUS,” Sollee said. “I have never been more at peace with my decision to join this group. Being here gives me such a strong sense of purpose.”
He said that GW students have been open to the group and interested in what it has to say.
“GW students, although not all Catholic, have been passionate about religion in general,” Sollee said. “People here are willing to have conversations and are open to dialogue and discussion about faith.”