How in the world do you help someone get to the point where they can confidently say they know Jesus? Like truly, authentically know Him?
All year, I’ve asked the students I walk with in discipleship whether or not they know Jesus. Like truly, on an intimate level. They usually hesitate and admit “I don’t know” or “I think…?” So how can I help them know for sure? It’s a daunting task, and it’s continuously plagued my mind since becoming a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) at the University of Colorado Boulder.
SEEK is the instigator for countless people coming to know Jesus. An insane amount of conversions can be traced to the huge bi-annual conference that FOCUS puts together. Heading into SEEK21, I felt a mounting sense of pressure for this year’s conference to be where my students finally encounter Christ. The organization’s insistence on bringing as many people to SEEK as possible only fueled this pressure.
In the days leading up to SEEK, I sat with why I was feeling so much anxiety. Coming from Los Angeles, the town of overnight successes, I’ve seen many friends’ lives change in the blink of an eye. I’d be remiss to say that the way LA operates hasn’t affected the way I think the spiritual life operates. If people can rocket from the bottom of society to the top in a single instant, why can’t our souls do the same? I’ve been chasing life-altering moments from God, both for myself and for my students. That’s not necessarily how God works, though.
Before SEEK began, I chose to listen to Mother Teresa’s wisdom: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” I was going to approach the conference by simply being where I was, with who I was, how I was. Whatever I would be asked to do, I would happily do. If God wanted to work, I would do my best to allow Him the space to do what He willed. If He didn’t want to work, well, I couldn’t make Him. As soon as I switched into this mindset, the pressure leaked right out of me. SEEK would be what it would be, and I would enjoy it as such.
I had been to SEEK once before as a college student. During my senior year, way back in 2015, my best friend and I road-tripped to Nashville with our group of friends to attend SEEK15. We rang in the New Year downtown before spending the following days with thousands of other college students worshipping our Lord. I don’t remember a lot from that week, but I do remember my FOCUS missionary praying with me during adoration. I never suspected during that conference—and in the five years following—that I would be working for FOCUS at SEEK21. I definitely never suspected that my best friend would later become my boss at FOCUS. God and His divine irony…
This year’s SEEK was unlike any other SEEK ever. Thanks for that, COVID.
Thousands of students were supposed to gather together in person. Instead, hundreds of campuses and thousands of parishes from around the world were asked to host their own “mini-SEEK,” in compliance with local and state COVID regulations. FOCUS teams from all over had the responsibility of basically throwing a wedding for their students: booking venues, organizing transportation, working contracts for sound and projection equipment, gathering food, etc. along with our usual duties of recruiting as many students as possible to join. Woo. Luckily, my team has some super organized people that enjoy all the logistic stuff. I was given the role of putting together a variety show for our parish.
CU Boulder lucked out from all the other campuses. On Thursday night, we were able to attend the “main” SEEK at the Gaylord Resort in Aurora, Colorado. I say “main” because it’s where the conference was being filmed and broadcast live to 27,000 people from 20 different countries.
On Friday, we set up our “mini-SEEK” in the conference room of a nearby hotel. On the drive there, a teammate admitted that she was feeling the pressure of bringing people to Jesus amidst all the other extra things we had to do this year. I tried to reassure her, “Our job is to just be available and let Jesus do His thing with everyone. The only times I’ve felt successful on mission have been when I’ve done nothing.” I was working on maintaining my new mindset.
I’m proud to say that the variety show went swimmingly Friday night. The crowd was energetic. Everyone in the show brought their A-game. Father Peter Mussett performed an improvised poem about a watermelon at a frat party that absolutely tore the house down. Leave it to Father Peter to take audience suggestions of “Walmart,” “Fireplace,” and “Watermelon” and then craft something both completely absurd and deeply profound.
Hosting the variety show felt like I was a part of something special. It felt like the Lord was bringing fruit from my previous five years spent in Hollywood doing comedy. It felt like He was bringing purpose out of my failure to “make it big,” a design into SNL’s rejection.
As I performed Camp Rock’s “This Is Me” as a spoken word, I noticed a pocket of new students laughing. Some of those students joined us at SEEK to give this whole “Jesus thing” a shot for the very first time. I saw that they were genuinely enjoying themselves, and it hit me. No amount of SNL glory, no amount of fame or fortune could ever equal a single soul opening itself to Christ. If it was a matter of being a movie star or having just one person—just one!—give this whole Jesus thing a chance, I would choose the latter. Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters. Our eternal destination, the spiritual reality around us, infinitely outweighs every other possible thing in this life. If all those years in Hollywood were spent to simply help just one student feel more welcome in our Catholic setting, to be enticed to hear what these crazy Catholics have to say about Jesus, then shoot. It was worth it. Nothing else matters.
“Small things.” God uses the small things. I couldn’t help but reflect after the show that maybe—just maybe—all those small comedy gigs were in preparation for this one night. Maybe—just maybe—all those small improv classes equipped me to embrace these new students on this night.
Curtis Martin’s closing keynote drove this reflection home for me. We have never talked to a mere mortal. Never. Everyone will live somewhere someday. It’s worth anything and everything to help each other get into Heaven.
CU Boulder lucked out again Saturday, our one full day of the conference, thanks to having one of the nation’s top theologians as our own—Dr. Scott Powell. Dr. Scott gave us a live talk, which was a breath of fresh air from all the digital talks we were watching. Before he went on stage, he asked to pray with our FOCUS team.
He gathered us, almost on the brink of tears, and began to recount his time with FOCUS. Dr. Scott was one of the first missionaries, back in FOCUS’s early years in the late 90’s, so he has the gift of being able to see some of the fruits of his labor. He told us the story of one of his former students, a “little punk” who just so happens to now serve as the spiritual director for the school where Dr. Scott’s children attend. “It was a simple invitation that I gave him one day. It wasn’t anything big. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering. It was just a small invitation that God used for him. You never know. One small thing way back when led him to now being in a role where he spiritually leads my children.” The small things. We never know what they are or how they’ll be used.
After Dr. Scott’s talk, we set out for dinner. Father Peter and I were hankering for a big ol’ burger, so we gathered some guys to join us. To my delight, three guys decided to tag along. I had tried all year to hang out with these three particular guys, so I was super stoked.
As we pounded down our burgers, Father Peter showed off a leather pencil case that he created during the virtual talks that day. Leave it to Father Peter to craft together something so oddly specific. He also showed off his brand new, rare mechanical pencil. I didn’t even know mechanical pencils could be rare. Immediately, one of the three guys lit up. He knew exactly what kind of pencil it was and then some. For twenty minutes, Father Peter and this student talked about their fascination with mechanical pencils, the different models in their collections, and all the different tech specs with each model. Never before in the history of the world has that conversation happened. The other two guys and me just laughed at the eccentricity of the conversation.
I saw in these guys what I saw on stage at the variety show. Their walls came down, and they felt connected. Something happened in that odd conversation. Something small, but something profound. The small things.
One of the guys, a freshman interested in Catholicism, asked to see Father Peter’s unique mechanical pencil. He immediately dropped it by accident, breaking the tip. His face went red, and I could feel the utter embarrassment that overtook him. Father Peter waved off his offers to buy him another pencil. “No problem, my man. Please. You’re so good.” A small act of mercy. A small act of kindness that gave him a real look into our faith. A small seed that could blossom one day.
After dinner was the main event—adoration. Adoration is always the pinnacle of SEEK, and this year’s adoration was a worldwide vigil across six continents. I was asked to lead our parochial vicar, Father Adrian Hernandez, in the procession of the Eucharist. I asked three senior guys to help me carry the four candles around Father Adrian.
We walked down every single aisle in the Omni’s conference room. Father Adrian gave a personal benediction of the Blessed Sacrament to each person in the room. I got a front-row seat to the power of the Eucharist. When Father would hold the monstrance over people and bless them, they would explode in tears. Left and right, people were popping like popcorn. I couldn’t watch because of how powerful and intimate it felt. The Holy Spirit was moving.
One girl, in particular, just lost it. I mean lost it. I found her after adoration with a group of girls and told her that she had a beautiful reverence for the Eucharist. She smiled and waved me off. A few minutes later, though, she came up to me and apologized for being embarrassed around the group of girls. She explained that she had never experienced the love of Jesus like that before. She then asked how she could become a FOCUS missionary. The small piece of bread that was Jesus’s Divine Presence had radically transformed her. The small things.
As I drank a nightcap beer with my teammates to celebrate the day, I thought back to my first SEEK and my FOCUS missionary praying with me. Maybe it was that small act of love that helped lead me where I am today. Maybe it was his small prayer during adoration at SEEK15 that led me to realizing a little more about God’s heart at SEEK21.
God works in tiny ways that, over time, become monumental. This weekend proved to me that it’s the subtle moments that bring the steadiest life changes. How we bring people to truly and authentically know Jesus is by doing the small things. Evangelization is just creating an atmosphere in which God can work. It’s actually super simple. He does the heavy lifting. We plant mustard seeds that He eventually grows into enormous trees. The world promises enormous trees from the start, but those trees inevitably wither into tiny mustard seeds over time.
This guest post was written by Tanner Kalina, a FOCUS missionary at the University of Colorado Boulder. Learn more about him HERE and follow him on Instagram.
The Identity of Jesus: Bishop Barron’s Address at SEEK 2021
Ready to attend SEEK22? This Dec. 30 – Jan. 3, #SEEK22 will be in Salt Lake City! Come be part of an incredible five-day event where we bring to God all that we are — all our questions, desires, needs, hopes — so that He can make all that is within us new. This is the next chapter of SEEK.
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