The following story appeared in the September 10 Idaho Catholic Register.
Erica and Jimmy Harrison with Anna Katherina at a celebration of their wedding. COVID forced the couple to marry in June of 2020 in Germany where Jimmy serves as a FOCUS missionary. On Sept. 4 of this year, the couple and their daughter had a celebration of their wedding for the benefit of family and friends not able to be with them in Germany. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy and Erica Harrison)
By Gene Fadness
Jimmy and Erica Harrison are “all in.”
All in to growing family: their own personal family and all in to nurturing a growing family of disciples 5,400 miles away in Passau, Germany.
Jimmy Harrison has been all in since a conversion to his faith while attending college at Santa Clara University. Even though he was raised in the faith, attending St. Mary’s Parish in Boise and Bishop Kelly High School, he had only a “loose relationship” with his faith and “chose to walk in a different direction,” while at university.
However, it was also at college that he began to look for deeper meaning to his life. “When I got to college at Santa Clara University, I faced a crisis.
I had two choices. Abandon the faith my parents passed on to me, or embrace it fully. I like to be all in or all out.”
He commenced his own personal study, reading books like, “Mere Christianity,” and following Catholic speakers and blogs. “I decided to give the Catholic Church a chance. Thank the Lord that I did because the Church captivated me with her truth, her beauty and her goodness.”
Instrumental to his conversion were a Jesuit priest on the campus (Father Manh Tran, who served briefly at St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center in Boise) and a missionary from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS. Harrison says he “stumbled on the FOCUS website” during his study. “Immediately, the Lord lit a fire in my heart,” he said.
After graduating from Santa Clara University with a degree in computer science, he was offered a job at a tech company and was also pondering law school. However, his newfound fire for his faith was pulling him in a different direction.
He applied and was accepted as a FOCUS missionary, sent to the University of California at Santa Barbara. All in.
Later, he became one of the first FOCUS missionaries sent overseas and in the very first group sent to Germany, where he, along with one other American and two Europeans, serve at the University of Passau in Passau. Despite the challenge of serving at a secular campus in the midst of a pandemic, Harrison is all in.
As is his wife, Erica.
Erica converted to Catholicism from her Protestant faith while attending the University of Idaho in Moscow. Instrumental to her conversion was a FOCUS missionary on the UI campus, Mickel Goepferich. Not long after her conversion, she, too, was became a FOCUS missionary, serving at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
Erica met Jimmy through a young adult ministry but was on a “dating fast” at the time. However, the two cyber-dated via Skype while he was in California and she in Indiana. That virtual romance went on for three months before their first in-person date. Within a month of that date, Harrison knew she was the one and proposed. All in.
Engaged in September of 2019, they set a wedding date for Sept. 12, 2020, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Boise. In the spring of 2020, Erica traveled to Germany to visit Jimmy for a week’s vacation. Then, the COVID pandemic shut down most all travel between Europe and the United States.
“We kept pushing out her departure a week, but she couldn’t get out,” Jimmy said. “She was stuck here. I told her, ‘We’re both ready for this. We should just get married now.’ ” All in.
The two were married in Germany on June 20, with no family present other than fellow FOCUS missionaries and students.
Once travel restrictions eased somewhat (before the latest surge), the Harrisons were able to return to the United States where they held a large celebration of their wedding on Sept. 4 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. A very special guest was Anna Katherina, their daughter born on May 18. All in.
The city that the Harrisons now call home is in the heart of Catholic Germany and Austria. Located in Lower Bavaria on the Austrian border, it is the home of heroic bishops like Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI and the current bishop in Passau, Bishop Stefan Oster, who Harrison says is a strong supporter of FOCUS and campus ministry in general. However, the German Church is known also as a place where secularism has gained much ground. While Passau is 90 percent Catholic, many of its large churches are nearly empty on Sundays.
That same secularism prevails on university campuses. “Post enlightenment Europe has a strong disdain for the need for religion,” Harrison told a group of his mission supporters at an event at his parents’ home last March. “They desperately cling to science to explain everything, so students think religion is obsolete,” Harrison said.
However, Germany is no different from anywhere else when it comes to people looking for meaning in life, for answers that science cannot provide.
At the gathering at his parents’ home, a questioner asked Harrison what is different about doing missionary work with the students at UC-Santa Barbara and those at Passau. Language and culture vary, but longing does not, Harrison said. “An 18-year-old dude in Santa Barbara and an 18-year old dude in Passau are both dealing with the same stuff and have the same longings.”
And, as anywhere else, there are those whose longings lead them to at least explore faith. The number of “disciples” – those who agree to pray at least
on hour daily and actively disciple other students through leading prayer groups and Bible studies – has gradually increased on the Passau campus. In the first year the team of four added two disciples and three more in the second year and six more in year three. Students participating in FOCUS-led Bible studies increased from 20 the first year, to 35 and now about 56, Harrison said.
While the numbers are, at the same time, both encouraging and discouraging, Harrison said it is important not to dwell on numbers, but on the souls behind each number.
For the last two years, he has received a card from a young man who has become an active part of the campus ministry in Passau. The card arrives on the anniversary date of his commitment to Christ with a note to Harrison, thanking him for helping to change his life.
That alone, beyond any number, has made the effort worth it for both Harrisons.
Both say they could never have imagined where their faith journey has taken them.
As a newly committed Catholic just eight years ago at Santa Clara University, Harrison said he was surprised at the plans God had for him. “I didn’t realize how much the Lord desired to give me. I thought I would be of great service, but I didn’t realize how much He wanted to give me.”
What happens next, the Harrisons do not know. Whatever it will be and wherever it will be, you can be sure they will be all in.
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