Last month, from March 13th to 22nd, nine students and four FOCUS Missionaries from across the country gathered in New York City for the first-ever FOCUS Missions Trip to the United Nations.
“I arrived determined and dedicated to a seemingly basic cause: the pro-life movement,” a student from Johns Hopkins University remarked, “But I [left] … a changed person.”
Another student from New York University felt anxious about the trip, but that it soothed his worries to know that God was really present there.
“I went into the UN Commission on the Status of Women anxious as to what God wanted me to do on this trip. However, as my week started I was struck by the incredible ability of my teammates letting God work through them. This was where the trip had the biggest impact on me because it showed how God was working through everyone’s passions, something so ingrained in our humanity.”
The week began with a debriefing in which the students were asked to draw a shield and place items or facts that mean a lot to them inside it. Almost every student drew a cross in the middle of the shield, and explained that their relationship with Christ meant a lot to them and they wanted it to be at the center of their lives.
Many students remarked that the community of people on the trip — brothers and sisters in Christ — was a foundation for the entirety of the trip. We were so close. We were like family. There’s a Spanish word, which very effectively describes this familial element, of a collection of people from different backgrounds, centered on a common pursuit of Christ. The word, conviviendo, in Spanish literally means to live together, or to coexist. We lived together, broke bread together, laughed together, cried together, prayed together.
Leading up to the trip, students underwent a three month long online training program (example) put on by the World Youth Alliance and FOCUS Formation Department in collaboration. The online training (an abridged version of the WYA Track A training) consisted of readings and discussion questions from the philosophical, theological, artistic, cultural, and legal underpinnings of Catholic social teaching including authors such as Weigel, Ghandi, Mandela, Lewis, Frankl, Malik, and Wojtyla.
Once on the ground, students underwent considerable training for two days before they started their time at the UN. On Saturday, the Sisters of Life put on a half-day training session, which focused on the pregnant woman: what is she thinking about, what are her fears, what is it like being in her situation and how do we talk to her? They spoke about the importance of “emptying out the bucket” — just being a ministry of presence to her and hearing her out. They emphasized the art of listening, as well as the importance of letting her speak her mind before you speak yours.
The next day, the students went through an afternoon of training with the World Youth Alliance, which served as a way to bridge the gap between the readings they had been reading for the past three months and the work they would be doing the next day.
In evening of that day, we attended a training session put on by the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, in collaboration with a few other NGOs. It was very informative and really focused on the practical and legal nature of our work the next week at the United Nations. It also served as an opportunity to meet other youth who would be there serving by our side that week.
When I first proposed the trip to FOCUS Missions, they remarked that it would be important to include aspects of one-on-one service with the poor into the trip. Initially, I was worried about committing to this goal because I did not know if it was logistically realistic; however, the more I thought about it, the more I realized including service in the trip it was imperative, and quite possibly the most important part of the trip.
Many people go to the Commission on the Status of Women and get sucked up in the policy side of it. Being in the political environment day in and day out, it is easy to forget that these policies, these debates, they mean something, and they have a serious and concrete impact on other people in the world. I wanted this trip to not only inspire young leaders for the pro-life movement, but I also wanted to bring them into an encounter with Christ in the poor and the downtrodden, to show them the power of His love in our broken humanity.
For the first service component of our trip, we the afternoon of March 14 on our hands and knees scrubbing the Chapel floor at the convent of the Sisters of Life. The following week, we spent Saturday morning working with the Missionaries of Charity in their hospice for HIV/AIDs patients and with the Good Counsel Pregnancy Homes. These experiences provided the students the opportunity to really ground their experiences at the United Nations.
From Monday, March 16 through Friday, the students spent each day attending side events and standing up for life at the Commission on the Status of Women. We assigned tasks based on peoples’ strengths, and activities included taking notes at events, promoting our message through social media, making short films, fact checking statistics and distributing peer-reviewed articles, practicing diplomacy and reaching out to communicate with people. While each of us spent time in each role, we tried to spend more time on tasks that played to our strengths. We also all tried to meet at least one delegate from a different country each day.
On the last evening of our trip, I asked the students to meet me on the roof of the Sheen Center. I had them look out over the city at night, and said to them something along these lines:
Look at the darkness of the night, the darkness of this great city — a microcosm of the world, in moral and spiritual desolation. But look at all the lights. Each one is small, but in some places, they take over, and in those places, the city seems to glow. Quoting John 1:5 ‘A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ We are those little lights, and we do not stand alone. Little lights in a world of darkness, we are a culture of life, we bring hope to the hopeless, we set the world on fire with the love of Christ.