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Devin Dunn tells conference being a missionary helped him as much as students he counseled

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College students attend Mass Feb. 5, 2022, during the SEEK22 conference at the Knoxville Convention Center. More than 1,000 participants from 15 campuses in five states attended the Fellowship of Catholic University Students conference. Because of the pandemic, the annual winter conference of FOCUS takes place as a hybrid event of smaller gatherings that feature livestreamed talks. (CNS photo/Gabrielle Nolan, The East Tennessee Catholic)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As emcee of SEEK22, Devin Dunn shared his experience as a former missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, talking about how being a missionary changed not only the people he worked with, but also himself.

“I wanted to be a Catholic rock star who’s going to like, kick onto a campus and be like, y’all need Jesus, and make disciples. And what I found really quickly after being hired as a FOCUS missionary is that I was the one who needed to know him deeper,” Dunn told college students gathered in Knoxville for the Feb. 4-6 conference.

“I had the opportunity in that mission to meet Jesus Christ in a deeper way, to realize his love for me, to realize my identity as a beloved son of God, and out of that identity to serve as his missionary,” he said.

“So, I think for many of us, the idea of becoming a FOCUS missionary might seem lofty, might seem far away, might seem like something for someone else,” he said, “but I really want to encourage you to consider if God might be calling you to be a FOCUS missionary.”

A collegiate outreach, FOCUS has missionaries on numerous college and university campuses in the U.S. and around the world. They are charged with sharing “the hope and joy of the Gospel” with small group meetings, Bible study and a variety of events.

Throughout the SEEK22 weekend, livestreamed speakers addressed several questions such as: Who am I? Who is Jesus? What is it Jesus taught? Why did Jesus die? How is God calling me?

Keynote speakers included current Catholic powerhouses such as Father Mike Schmitz, a priest of the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., who hosts the “Bible in a Year” podcast; Sister Miriam James Heidland, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity; Edward Sri, a theologian and author; Father Josh Johnson, a podcaster and vocations director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La.; Sister Bethany Madonna of the Sisters of Life; and FOCUS founder Curtis Martin.

“When FOCUS works on a college campus, it isn’t so much that we can do great campus ministry, we hope that that happens,” Martin shared with his local crowd in Denver and to the thousands of people watching via livestream.

“What we realize is that you’re going to get more amazing with time,” he explained. “The hope and prayer is … if we can trust Christ in our lives and allow him in, he starts to work in us in our 20s, then in our 30s, then in our 40s, we’ll become more amazing with time.”

“It just so happens that this weekend, 24 years ago exactly, the first FOCUS event of all time occurred,” he continued. “It’s such a delight to be reminded 24 years ago we had about 20 students, we issued the invitation to Christ-like leadership and each of them, each to the last person, accepted the invitation.”

In Knoxville, Jesuit Father Kevin Dyer, a part-time FOCUS chaplain, celebrated morning Mass Feb. 5. For the past decade, the priest has been involved with FOCUS in a variety of ways, such as summer training of missionaries.

“I love this, I love the people that get brought together in something like that,” Father Dyer said. “It really is a reflection of the Gospel today, where Jesus brought everybody together, and the priests and religious who are here, to see the missionaries, our mission partners, and then all the students who are coming in seeking out the Lord is really a huge consolation to my heart.”

In addition to watching livestreamed talks, local speakers also traveled to Knoxville so that students could experience in-person impact sessions.

Students chose to attend talks that were most relevant to them, whether that was on the topic of vocations, how to pray, care for the poor, transgenderism, pornography, the feminine genius, or how to trust God.

Present for his Knoxville impact session was Catholic speaker and musician Paul J. Kim, widely known for his YouTube videos with Ascension, a faith formation platform.

Kim shared his conversion story, which occurred while he was in college, reflecting on the importance of having a relationship with Mary.

“Despite my lack of faith, despite my poor decisions to do anything and everything except to follow Him, but the Holy Spirit was still active in my life,” he said. “I was trying to fill the emptiness in my life, to silence my conscience, but God kept inviting me.”

Kim explained how he turned to the rosary when he began to feel a desire to pray.

“As I knelt next to my bed and I prayed the rosary, weird things started happening. I felt more peace, joy, and purpose in that 20 minutes of prayer than I did in my whole month’s worth of screwing around. And it intrigued me, and I came back to it the next day,” he said.

“I was praying the rosary in college, and out of nowhere I start smelling roses. And it wasn’t because I was geographically located next to a rose bush,” Kim continued. “And it freaked me out because I was like, what is happening?

“But as I pondered why she might be visiting me out of all people in the world, what was made clear was she was saying something very important.”

He said Mary was telling him: “Paul, this is real. Everything you’re reflecting on right now is real. My Son is real. What he accomplished for you on the cross is real. He has a plan for your life. Respond to his call.”

The author, Gabrielle Nolan, is a multimedia reporter at The East Tennessee Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Knoxville.