Finding a FOCUS in Life

A FOCUS Team Director from the University of Toledo shares the story of how he found FOCUS and why he decided to become a missionary. 

My name is Branson Schroeder, and I am a third-year missionary with FOCUS serving as the team director at the University of Toledo. I grew up in Evansville, IN in a Catholic family, and am the middle son of three boys. I attended Catholic school K-12, and after graduating high school, I moved to the small town of Murray, KY, and attended Murray State University. There I studied Exercise Science with an emphasis in Pre-Physical Therapy. Murray is where I began to discover the Lord’s love for me and late my senior year, where I decided to give the next several years of my life to serve with FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). At the time, I planned to serve two years with FOCUS and go back to school to earn my doctorate in Physical Therapy, but the Lord had other plans! At this point in my life, the idea of earning a master’s in counseling while continuing to serve as a missionary with FOCUS seems to be where the Lord is calling me and bringing my heart a lot of excitement and peace.

My story growing up in the Catholic faith is similar to many others I’ve encountered. My family was faithful to Sunday Mass, sent me to Catholic school, and taught me all the common prayers we pray. I can honestly say I never doubted God’s existence, but it took quite a long time to discover His deep love for me, my need for mercy, and the relationship with Jesus I’m made for. I don’t think I had a firm foundation in Christ growing up, so I wouldn’t say I fell away from Him, but I definitely widened the gap later on in grade school and all throughout high school when I began to do things I knew I shouldn’t for the sake of fitting in and earning attention from others. My viewpoint was that if I wasn’t hurting anyone, I was okay, and slowly but surely, I began to justify worse and worse behavior.

My wakeup call (or rather, wakeup calls) came in college my freshman year. Due to a string of very poor decisions all involving alcohol consumption, I found myself at a rock bottom place where all these pleasures of the world finally showed their true colors, and I recognized how empty and broken I was. Through the authentic friendship and invitation of several men in my life, I finally discovered my need for a Savior and his divine mercy. I saw that I couldn’t pick myself up anymore or clean myself off, that only He could free me from the chains I had lived in for so long. Growing up Catholic, I thought I knew all there was to know about Jesus, but I had only scratched the surface in understanding how much I need Him, and how knowing about a person is far from knowing a person and having intimacy with Him. I attended the FOCUS Seek Conference in 2017 and decided to return to the sacrament of confession for the first time in years. After finally laying all my sins before the mercy of God and receiving absolution, His grace poured in. Through beginning the habit of daily prayer and receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, getting to know my Lord through His Scriptures, and surrounding myself with holy men, Jesus began transforming my heart, my desires, and the trajectory of my life quicker and more effectively than I ever could have done on my own.

At the time, I was in a fraternity and had a lot of friendships that I now saw in a different light. I wanted them to know Jesus, and I knew the way that I spent time with them needed to look differently. Learning how to navigate those relationships, and love them with the love Christ has for them was not a cakewalk, and standing against the culture and the ease that the world offers is still something the Lord continues to purify me in. I started a Bible study for my fraternity brothers and was discipled by a great friend my senior year, and these moments of learning and leading quickly became the parts of the week I looked forward to most. Christ was relentlessly showing me his heart for his people and placing that same heart for them in me. He was preparing me for something radical in that year, it just took me a while to recognize and trust in.

I spent my spring break on a FOCUS mission trip to Honduras, and while I was there I met a woman named Carol, who was a consecrated laywoman directing the efforts of the Missionaries of Christ in Honduras. While there, she gave a talk about giving everything to Christ and his mission of making disciples. Her words were along these lines, “Thank you for giving your vacation to come serve here, and know that the Lord is never outdone in generosity. But unless you give your entire life in whatever you do to serving Christ and his mission for souls, you will always be dissatisfied.” Those words struck a chord that day and have stayed with me ever since. At the time, I had already applied to Physical Therapy schools and gotten accepted into a few of my top choices. I had also been asked to consider applying for staff with FOCUS, but had been hesitant to open that door for the Lord. I was scared of what it might lead to. I was okay with continuing to lead bible studies and talk to people about Jesus, but to give two years to serve as a missionary? That posed many fears and took more trust in providence than almost anything else I could imagine. Thanks to one of the FOCUS missionaries I met on the trip (who is now the best man in my wedding) who talked me through some of these fears, I decided to apply.

During the interview weekend, I grew in conviction of mission. I recalled all the people in my life (and the Lord had to use quite a few people!) who shamelessly and boldly brought me closer to Jesus, who has forever changed and continues to transform my life. I wondered where I’d be without them. God moves mountains to bring his children home, but He often will use the cooperation of His faithful to do this. I knew without a doubt that saying yes to FOCUS would be a challenge, but Carol’s words rang in my mind, and I was certain this was the next leap of faith God was inviting me to take. In April of my senior year, I let my plans of going to PT school go and joined the efforts of FOCUS. The Lord has shown His generosity through this decision! It’s such a joy to see and get to take part in conversion, but ultimately the Lord has used this apostolate to continue to show me His goodness and care for my own heart. There is so much brokenness and impurity I still need to be healed of. Our Catholic faith is not a “one and done” profession, but each morning I need to recall my need for Jesus that very day. I can do absolutely nothing without Him, and the minute I try to handle the mission on my own, my fervor cools, my effectiveness weakens, and my pride swells. Jesus reminds me through the ups and downs of this work how little depends on my talents and skills, and how much depends on Him and my obedience to where He leads.

FOCUS missionaries receive 5 weeks of intense summer training where we develop in areas of human, spiritual, intellectual, and apostolic formation. We go to classes taught by veteran FOCUS staff, clergy, and professors, and receive some of the best training in raising our personal financial support. Following these several weeks, we spend at least the next month going out to those in our communities and sharing with them the goal of our mission in making disciples on the college campus, and invite them to partner with us through their prayers and generous donations. Each missionary is able to raise their whole annual income in just a few shorts weeks. This was one of the first ways I saw God’s great providence coming through so tangibly. We continue to receive professional training through our team and regional directors all year on campus.

My first two years, I served at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. It was beautiful to serve close to home and mentor students from my hometown. We were the first FOCUS team to serve at IU, and thankfully saw massive growth in the two years I was there both in mass attendance, Bible study attendance, adoration shifts, and overall involvement, but also in deeper friendships being forged and spiritual conversations taking place. I got to work closely with Fraternity men whom I relate well to, and in just two years FOCUS hired six more missionaries out of IU!

I’ve now moved in my third year to the University of Toledo and serve as the team director. I now oversee more of the formation and development of my three teammates than I did my first two years. I help direct the overall mission efforts on campus and work closely with Fr. Jeremy, our chaplain, and Kim, our Campus Minister. Our main work as missionaries varies a bit depending on the season. We call the first few weeks of school “Fall Outreach,” and this is when most of our very broad outreach is done. We know that what students get involved in their first four weeks of classes will likely determine what they do with their whole college career. So, we go out on campus and meet as many people as we can, and typically invite them to an event that we hold that week, like a cookout, volleyball tournament, or yard games. We then begin to transition to inviting more people to faith-related events, and inevitably these students begin to either commit deeply to the Catholic community, commit partially, or dissociate altogether. We then move more into a season of equipping faithful students to lead their peers, whether that be in a bible study or just teaching them how to invest in their friends in an intentional way. We know that creating missionary disciples on campus and mobilizing them to form those around them will reach more than just we as the missionaries ever could. We strive, imperfectly, to lead by example in all we do. FOCUS missionaries attend mass daily, pray a daily holy hour, lead bible studies and disciple students, and accompany our students in anything and everything we can. We also have tactical and formational meetings each week to continue growing in our faith and effectiveness as well. We spend a lot of time and energy inviting to events, mission trips, conferences, bible studies, etc, and are praying often how we can help move those God has entrusted to our care another step closer to Christ.

We’ve seen some beautiful fruits this year on campus at Toledo. There have been over 150 students to come to bible study this first semester, with about 125 of them going at least 4 times. We have 22 students in formal discipleship, learning how to live life-long mission and acquiring the skills to share their faith more effectively, we just flew over 40 students to Phoenix over Christmas break to attend the FOCUS Student Leadership Summit, and we’re gearing up launch them all back into mission this spring. There are several students going through RCIA and many more that recently returned to the sacraments this year. The Lord is blessing our efforts at Toledo in abundance.

One of my favorite aspects of being a missionary is accompanying a student as they begin to discover their purpose of becoming a saint and bringing as many people as they can with them. I love getting to walk with them in this process, and then witnessing them move from dependence on me in some ways as their mentor, to dependence on God and interdependence amongst us. I’ve had the joy of becoming true friends with many of the men I disciple, and eventually I’m no longer the one who is doing all the teaching and forming, but there is a beautiful transition to mutual teaching and encouragement and running side by side towards Christ. I’d say a difficulty in this mission is when Christ is rejected. Having come to discover that the Christian life is worth the difficulty, and salvation is worth the perseverance, it saddens me when a student begins to see the truth of what they’re made for, and then runs the other direction. I trust the Lord can bring great fruit from the seeds we’re able to plant, but it’s still difficult to see. Another difficulty is putting too much pressure on my own words or investment in students. On both my campuses, there have been many students I could give my time to, and it’s easy to get so caught in a savior-complex, that if I do or say something wrong, or fail to spend my time in the right ways, someone will not come to know the love of Jesus. This is one of the main ways Satan works in missionaries – by getting them to think someone’s salvation hinges on what they do or do not do. This can cause issues in the way I schedule my week or the amount of rest I decide to take and is an ongoing learning experience in being a missionary, and a disciple in general.

I plan to be with FOCUS as long as the good Lord asks me to be. Going into my sixth semester with FOCUS, I’m fairly confident in doing a fourth year, while also pursuing a master’s degree in counseling. I’ve found that when I try to make plans too far into the future, the Lord invites me to something different, so I just pray that I will always listen to Him and be open to something I don’t expect. The Father has given me and many others so much through this apostolate and I want to serve Him through this mission until He invites me away. I’m eternally grateful for His generosity and mercy each day, and I pray I spend each day until my last making a gift of myself back to Him.