Justin Leiner knows it can be intimidating to publically share the Catholic faith, but the benefits, he’s found, are eternally rewarding.
“I can certainly be nervous at times with public evangelism, but I have overcome that fear many times by trusting that God will do something very good through my ‘yes’ to share his love with courage,” he said. “I have seen the power of sharing how Christ has loved me with people who are close to me and people who I’ve just met — and it never disappoints.”
The homegrown Alaskan is in his third year as a missionary with the international Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). He grew up in Palmer and later attended East High in Anchorage.
Now stationed with three fellow missionaries at Bowling Green State University, Leiner is one of 700 FOCUS missionaries located on more than 150 U.S. campuses across 42 states.
Launched in 1998, FOCUS just celebrated its 20th anniversary. The organization works with existing campus ministries like Newman Centers to bring students to Scripture studies, liturgies, mission trips to serve the poor, and to invite young adults into a deeper relationship with Christ and his church.
While it is difficult to measure “success,” Leiner has seen students attracted to the Catholic faith through the work of FOCUS. Most recently his four-person campus team — comprised of two men and two women — took 53 students to SEEK 2019, the biannual national convention organized by FOCUS. This year’s gathering saw 17,000 mainly college students from across the country pack the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.
“One of the students I invited to SEEK actually grew up Protestant, but loved eucharistic adoration at SEEK and really wants to enter into the Catholic Church because he has found so much truth and beauty in our church,” Leiner said. “Most of the students I work with are Catholic, but I do work with students who are fallen-away Catholics and some non-Catholics.”
Leiner said he is hopeful that the conference experience will deepen the faith of students who attended.
“Going into spring semester, I can’t wait to see how the excitement and truth the students learned at SEEK will help them live out their faith strongly back on campus,” he said. “
Leiner lives on campus with one other male missionary, while the two female missionaries live nearby. Individually the members must raise money to pay their own expenses.
Leiner plans to work with FOCUS for at least another year. During that time he plans to continue to evangelize through personal encounters with college students.
“We invite them into a growing relationship with Jesus and the Catholic faith — inspiring and equipping them for a lifetime of Christ-centered evangelization, discipleship and friendships in which they lead others to do the same,” he said.
The work isn’t always easy.
Leiner, who graduated in 2017 with a degree in theology from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., knows that young adults are increasingly abandoning the faith, and efforts like FOCUS have their work cut out. The FOCUS website states that only 30 percent of Americans raised Catholic are still practicing today.
Leiner’s typical week at Bowling Green includes leading Bible studies, eating meals with students or praying with them and offering discipleship.
“The most important goal is to build good friendships with students and from that friendship invite them into life with Christ,” he said. “Inviting students to come with me to adoration and Mass, and coming to pray with us at church, are definitely some of my most rewarding times in ministry.”
Leiner’s group doesn’t have a campus office but works closely with the campus Newman Center ministry, especially with events and weekly activities where they can meet students.
Leiner meets one-on-one with two Bowling Green students to help them live out “missionary discipleship.” He also has an average of 15 men attend his Bible study.
“We truly believe that by helping students to learn to share Christ with others as we do, many more souls will be reached for Christ,” he said.
While the life of a missionary is full of blessings, Leiner also experiences disappointments.
“As a missionary, it can definitely be challenging to see relationships that start off as promising simply fall off the map or not bear any fruit,” he said. “I truly care for the students I meet and invest in, but sometimes you have to trust God to work on the seeds you planted but did not get to see flourish.”
To college students who may be nervous about bringing up their faith, Leiner offered encouragement.
“The hearts of your friends around you are desperate for the incredible love that only God can provide, and it is a love that is worth sharing,” he said. “Even if it may be awkward or you feel like you don’t know what to say, trust that God will bless your faithfulness of just trying to share the most important part of your life.”