Catholic Herald staff
Dan Tracy takes a lot of selfies. It’s a virtue for a campus missionary who spends much of his time hanging out with students.
Tracy works with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a nationwide campus ministry that has attracted two Superior residents to its mission.
Both parishioners of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Tracy and Arne Nyeck are embarking on a year of missionary work on Minnesota campuses starting this fall.
Tracy returns to Saint John’s University in Collegeville for his second year with FOCUS, while Nyeck begins his inaugural missionary year at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
A native of Superior, Tracy, 25, has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and psychology and a master’s degree in sport management. Despite growing up in a faith-filled family with a mother whose vocation is serving the poor – Lynn Tracy is director of charitable ministries for the cathedral, and she is the vice president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – Tracy still put his Catholicism aside in college.
His story exemplifies the experience of many young American Catholics. According to FOCUS, 80 percent of people who leave the faith do so by age 23.
To staunch the flow of young Catholics out of the church, FOCUS trains missionaries to fundraise their own budgets, develop personal relationships with students, hold Bible studies and steer young adults toward lifelong Catholic mission.
Tracy was on his way to becoming a statistic when a FOCUS missionary inspired him to revisit his faith. Profoundly changed by the encounter, he shifted into a God-centered lifestyle that led him into missionary work.
Nyeck, 24, is from Cameroon, a West African country where about one-third of the population is Catholic. While studying at UW-Superior, he noticed how many college students lived for drinking and partying on weekends.
His mindset was opposite – he was focused on his studies – and seeing so few students in church was another culture shock. He saw the need for God.
Nyeck was also feeling God’s presence in his own life. Unable to afford tuition one semester, he prayed a novena and went for the first time to an international night on campus. There, he told the host about his troubles; a few days later, she gave him a check for the full amount.
FOCUS’s mission inspired Nyeck, and he likes that Tracy takes his life seriously. When Nyeck told his family he was considering a year of missionary work, they were supportive.
His aunt and parents prayed someone in the family would follow Jesus Christ, he explained, and they encouraged him to do so – to serve God with passion, and to be a leader rather than a follower.
“You work for it, you pray for it,” his dad told him. “Anything that comes easily is dangerous.”
Tracy, too, felt supported in taking up missionary work. Although his mom is a powerful witness to her faith, she didn’t influence his decision, he said.
“I think it’s beautiful that she serves the materially poor, and I serve the spiritually poor,” he added.
Fundraising their own budgets – for food, housing, student loans and other mission-related expenses – is far from easy, as Nyeck is learning. Initially it was a nerve-wrecking experience meeting with potential donors, especially because he’s foreign, he said, but now he’s letting God speak through him, and trusting God completely.
“Everything you do, waking up in the morning, being able to make your cup of coffee in the morning – it’s a blessing,” he said.
Before missionaries enter college campuses, they receive five weeks of training in Florida.
“It’s like the best Catholic formation you can get,” Tracy said, noting they hear from the best Catholic speakers, learn to defend Catholicism intellectually and continue to grow spiritually.
If Nyeck felt hesitant heading into his first days at Mankato, he says he’s now equipped for the mission ahead.
“I’ve had some spiritual direction and training,” Nyeck said. “I’m pretty confident.”
“We just live life with college students,” Tracy explained.
In his first year at Saint John’s, he played intramural sports, attended classes, even watched movies in the dorms with groups of students.
FOCUS missionaries reach out to everyone around them, although they follow Jesus’ example of selecting a few among the many – in his case, Peter, John and James – and investing the most time in those relationships.
It isn’t their job to be “super-extroverted,” Tracy added. Instead, they must nurture their own prayer lives.
“The most attractive thing is holiness,” he said.
He sums it up with a quote from 1 Corinthians (11:1): “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
“In a lot of ways, that’s what we strive to do,” he added.
The founder of FOCUS challenges people to be world-changers, Tracy continued. Just as Jesus was a great influencer of mankind, so, too, do FOCUS missionaries strive to influence others.
The course of Tracy’s life has truly been shaped by FOCUS and its missionaries. In his second year with the organization, he plans to concentrate on discernment.
God will guide him in whichever vocation he pursues, he said, be it family life or religious life. He knows he’s on the right path.
“I can’t not be a missionary,” he said.
Nyeck ultimately wants to go to graduate school, and he hopes to take time to develop his musical talent – he can play piano by ear. But, at the moment, he said, “I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
Although FOCUS can be found on more than 100 campuses across the country, including many in Wisconsin, the organization so far has not arrived in the Diocese of Superior. Either a bishop must approach the organization, or vice-versa, before a new program can begin, Tracy said.
As they prepare to embark upon a yearlong journey into the minds and hearts of young Catholics, Tracy and Nyeck will be meeting with mission partners, trusting in God’s guidance and hoping to be a light unto others.
St. Therese of Lisieux said, “Some give by going, some go by giving, and both are needed,” Tracy said. “We always want to invite.”
To learn more about FOCUS, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or visit focus.org.