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Updated: Sep 13, 2021

New Catholics find faith in the unlikeliest of places: the college campus

The following story appeared in the August 27 Idaho Catholic Register.

The new FOCUS missionaries on the campus of the University of Idaho in Moscow are, from left, Bryson Thomas, Allie Friesen, Emily Ambrosio and Molly Schwartz. (Courtesy photo/FOCUS)

By Gene Fadness


Erick Christensen and Cooper Dow went away to college to get away from all the God-stuff. They surmised that at secular institutions – Christensen at Boise State and Dow at Colorado State – that they would leave the unwelcome influence of Christianity behind.

Likewise, Bryson Thomas, left her Baker City, Oregon home to attend school at Kansas State University, not suspecting that her nominal Protestant faith would be impacted by her university experience.

Bryson Brown grew up in heavily Mormon Utah, but was not affiliated with any religion until he encountered committed Catholics in the Bronco Catholic group on the Boise State campus.

All came to faith in Christ, all converted to Catholicism and now all serve as missionaries for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). Christensen is at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va; Dow is on the campus of Idaho State University in Pocatello; Thomas is part of the FOCUS team at the University of Idaho in Moscow; and Brown, the BSU grad, is now at the University of Maine’s Orono campus.

Christensen and Dow grew up in homes that did not practice a faith tradition and did not have a high opinion of Christianity and its adherents.

“In my mind, people that believed in anything religious were foolish because science disproves all religion. I carried this belief throughout my freshman year at college,” said Christensen, a native of Colorado, who moved to Boise at age 14 and graduated from Timberline High School in 2017.

Dow left his home in Littleton, Co., to enroll at Colorado State in Fort Collins, “to be free of Christians and Catholics. I thought going to university would mean getting away from Christian influences.” Now a FOCUS missionary at Idaho State, Dow says his family at home, while supportive and intrigued, are surprised. “I’m just as surprised as you are,” he told them.

Erick Christensen

For Christensen, the influence of friends led him to consider faith – but it wasn’t Christian friends, it was his friends from high school who had accompanied him to Boise State. “I got so tired of the drunkenness, the premarital sex and other unhealthy behaviors of my friends from high school and also my roommates at BSU,” one of whom smoked weed in his apartment four times a day.

One friend, however, Bryson Brown (now the FOCUS missionary at the University of Maine) kept inviting him to go to the St. Paul Catholic Student Center on the BSU campus.

Christensen politely declined Brown’s invitations to visit the Catholic student center, but he did begin to form friendships with some of the Catholic students. “There was some virtue there that was missing from my life. They weren’t going out and getting hammered every night like everyone else in my life was and they really had an emphasis on treating other people well.”

He started spending some time at the Bronco Catholic student center. “I still thought they were foolish, but these were good people,” he said. Still, he was resistant toward “anyone who tried to approach me about Jesus.” That changed one night after he had learned one of his high school friends had flunked out of college. “That threw me into kind of a state of shock. I never thought that would happen to any of us,” he said. “One of my friends at the Catholic student center noticed how down I was and dragged me to Adoration.”

“I walked in and was astounded by the fact that there were 30 students kneeling around a table with a gold thing on it,” Christensen said. “I was very confused but managed to stay. I truly encountered something there. I felt like all the love in the world was sitting next to me. I knew I had to come back, even if I didn’t know what was happening.”

Even though he was not yet attending Mass, Christensen says he began to develop a prayer life and would continue to go to Adoration.

About three weeks after the first experience at Adoration, the students at St. Paul’s invited Christensen to attend their spring retreat. “That’s where I first heard about how much God loved me and had a plan for my life, and His plan was a lot better that me trying to control everything in my life.” After that retreat, he said, he had to learn “if this was real and if it was important, because if it wasn’t, I would be wasting my time there.”

He started his own research, especially on the biblical and historical context of the Mass with books like Dr. Scott Hahn’s “The Last Supper.” His first experiences at Mass were not positive. “The only thing that was explained to me was to go up and put my arms across my chest. It felt like Catholic calisthenics because I didn’t understand what was going on.”

His continued study of the Mass drew him back. He approached Deacon Mac Chester, then assigned to St. Paul’s, and asked him how he could become Catholic. It was a week before Easter. Deacon Chester told him he had to wait a year. “While initially frustrated, I was grateful that I had a year to understand what I was getting into, although there were moments I was saddened by my inability to receive communion at Mass.”

His friend, Bryson Thomas, was also planning on getting baptized that Easter in 2019. During their RCIA year, they attended the SEEK Conference, an annual FOCUS conference attended by about 17,000, including 12,000 college students. They also completed a mission trip to Peru over their spring break.

Christensen spent his last two years at BSU discerning a call to become a FOCUS missionary. After graduating from Boise State this year with a bachelor’s in administration, Christensen accepted a call to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., about 130 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

Bryson Brown

Brown grew up religiously unaffiliated in West Jordan, Utah. “My parents raised and provided for my younger sister and me very well, but I struggled a lot with depression and isolation,” he wrote.

Midway through his senior year of high school, he received a scholarship to Boise State. “This was a great opportunity to leave my place of isolation and begin to build long-lasting relationships with people,” he said. “But once I got to campus in Boise, the feeling of isolation and depression took hold again. I was very lonely and did not know many people.

I tried my best to put myself out there in order to make friends, but it was very difficult.”

One of Brown’s professors suggested he visit St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center. “I woke up one day and decided that my life needed to change. I walked over to St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center and haven’t looked back since.”

Brown said he met a lot of great people at St. Paul’s, including FOCUS missionaries “who were markedly different from the other people on campus. They seemed to have a joy and a purpose in life, which was something that I had been searching for since high school.” Brown joined a Bible study, the Frassati men’s group and started the RCIA process. “I began to build a relationship with Jesus Christ. In the person of Jesus and through His Church, I found the answers to all of my deepest desires and questions. I found that God had been with me from the moment that I was born and was calling me out of my crippling isolation in order to rest and abide in His love.”

Brown and Erick Christensen, the classmate Brown initially invited to attend the student center, were baptized, Confirmed and received First Communion during the Easter Vigil Mass in 2019.

After his graduation from Boise State with degrees in political science and anthropology, Brown received an official offer from FOCUS and readily accepted.

“As a missionary, my greatest desire is to lead all students to a new life with Christ. My life has been transformed by Jesus through FOCUS, and I want nothing more than to bring this joy to others and introduce them to the life-changing message of the Gospel,” he writes. “I look to Jesus’ own example to find the best method of reaching the world by humbling myself, meeting students where they are at, and investing deeply in their lives to bring them into an encounter with Christ. I’ve been constantly amazed by the different souls I’ve encountered during my time in the Church.”

Cooper Dow

At the time Dow enrolled at Colorado State, he “had no interest in or understanding of God,” he said. He was interested only in pursuing his studies, winter camping and snowboarding. Growing up in suburban Denver, he said he was “going to college to be free of Christians and Catholics.”

However, to his surprise, on his dormitory floor were quite a few Christians of varying faiths. “I thought we wouldn’t get along, but started to realize I could have friendships with people who didn’t have the same beliefs as me.”

Cooper Dow and Emily Campbell

One of his new Christian friends invited him to his church to see the movie, “The Case for Christ,” which persuaded Dow to start considering “the miracle of the resurrection and that there might be something to the divinity of Jesus.”

The day after he saw the movie, Dow’s 18-year-old brother, Sawyer, was killed in a climbing accident.

His brother’s tragic death did not make Dow angry at God, he said. Instead, Dow believes it is providential that he was at that movie the night before his brother’s passing. “In the midst of that experience, I was willing to see if there was something more out there to make sense of what happened.”

Helping out at Bengal Catholic and on the Idaho State University campus are FOCUS missionaries, from left, Joshua Snow, Cooper Dow, Emily Campbell and Annie Snow, holding her daughter, Magdalena. (Courtesy photo/FOCUS)

Dow’s initial experience in Christianity was with evangelical friends. “Initially I was struck by the scientific and logical evidence for faith, but they helped me see the importance of developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said. “One night, I was alone in my room and coming to terms with the overwhelming evidence and conviction. I knew then, that I had to just take the next step and trust.”

However, some of those same evangelical friends who had been an influence on his life were converting to Catholicism.

“I wanted to learn as much as I could about whatever it was that was convicting them,” Dow said. He started visiting Ram Catholic, the Catholic student center on campus, reading, and listening to Catholic podcasts. He joined his friends on a Ram Catholic retreat in the spring of 2019. After the retreat, he inquired about taking RCIA, but there were only about two classes left before Easter Vigil. “But I was so on fire at that point. I got to know the instructor and she saw that I had a solid foundation.” He was baptized and Confirmed two weeks after Easter on May 12, 2019. That same week he started dating Emily Campbell, now his fiancée and also a FOCUS missionary at Idaho State.

Initially, his family was confused, he said. “I told them I was just as surprised by this as you are.” His brother’s death “shook the whole community,” he said. “A lot of my friends and family are searching for peace and understanding after the loss of my brother, and they are very intrigued by the joy and passion and purpose that I have for life now.”

After his conversion, Dow went to work at a Catholic summer camp and discovered how much he enjoyed sharing his faith with young people. He returned to campus his senior year and became very involved with the Catholic student center and got to know the FOCUS missionaries, which led to his decision to become a part of FOCUS himself. He graduated last May with a degree in communications.

Emily Campbell

A native of Pinewood Springs, Colo., Campbell recently graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies, a pre-health concentration, and a Spanish minor. She and her fiancé, fellow FOCUS missionary Cooper Dow, became engaged on April 3 and will be getting married Oct. 3.

Campbell, raised in a Catholic home, said her faith has always been important to her. She graduated from Holy Family High School in Broomfield, Colo. During her first year at CSU, her best friend invited her to a FOCUS event at their university parish.

“After that, I quickly got involved with the FOCUS community and began to develop a personal prayer life for the first time,” Campbell said. “Jesus gently showed me that I needed to change some of my habits and let go of my perfectionism to fully embrace a life of joy with Him.” She began leading a Bible study and serving as a student leader within the community. “I´m so grateful to all the wonderful people I encountered throughout college.”

Campbell had planned on attending graduate school directly after graduating from Colorado State University. However, she said, God had other plans. “Throughout the spring semester of my senior year of college I kept hearing God consistently call me to apply to FOCUS. At first, I was resistant because I already had plans. Then during one Sunday homily, the priest spoke of the prophet Jonah and his decision to run away from where God was calling him before eventually following God´s plan. I felt as if the homily spoke directly to me because I was trying to run from God´s plan for me.”

She applied to FOCUS and was assigned to Idaho State where she will work one-on-one with students as well as help at Bengal Catholic, the student ministry in Pocatello.

During the year Cooper Dow was received into the Church, he was one of five men on his dormitory floor to do so. His is just one example of the impact Christians can have on the lives of others.

Bryson Thomas

Bryson Thomas grew up in a nominally Christian home in Baker City, Oregon. But it wasn’t until she began studying at Kansas State University that she encountered Christians whose faith made a genuine difference in their lives.

“I ended up getting involved with a non-denominational ministry on campus, developing good prayer habits, and surrounding myself with fellow-ship,” Thomas said. But it wasn’t until one of her best friends, Elizabeth, converted to Catholicism that she began to question seriously what God had planned for her life. “I had always looked up to Elizabeth as an example in the Christian faith, and her decision set in motion a time of searching and longing for deeper intimacy with God.”

Bryson Thomas

At about the same, another good friend, Kaylor, was becoming increasingly involved with FOCUS. “Her example as a faithful Catholic woman helped me to better understand the faith and the beauty of the Church.” Thomas decided to take RCIA during her junior year, and she was received into the Church on May 31, 2020, with Kaylor as her sponsor. “Elizabeth also walked beside me on my journey to Catholicism and later asked me into discipleship with her through FOCUS. I owe so much gratitude to these women, FOCUS, and St. Isidore’s Catholic Student Center. Through these relationships, God has brought me into divine intimacy with Him. I cannot imagine myself being anywhere else, and I feel as though the Catholic Church has always been my home.”

This year, the Oregon native has returned to the Pacific Northwest as a FOCUS missionary at the University of Idaho.

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