“I often think about how Jesus approached the woman at the well, how gentle it was,” the young missionary said. “That’s an approach that I also love to take. I just try to be myself and meet people.”
As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ and proclaim the Gospel. The various ways we can live out this call is as unique as each individual person. For Mary Mone, this call to evangelize led her to become a FOCUS missionary.
The youngest of eight children, Mary moved to Mineola, Texas, from Illinois with her family when she was 14. A cradle Catholic, Mary was involved in the youth groups at St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Mineola and at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Tyler during her high school years.
“I kind of became that youth group kid a little bit,” Mary said with a laugh. “My whole life was youth group. That was my place.”
After completing high school, Mary attended Tyler Junior College (TJC) for two years, where her faith became about going through the motions.
“By the end of my sophomore year, the only thing I did for my faith was go to Mass on Sunday with my parents. I would sit in the church and completely zone out,” Mary explained. “I was no longer interested in being there. It was because I didn’t have a relationship with God. I knew all these things about the Church, but no one can teach you or give you a relationship. I can only give you truths that inspire a relationship.”
After completing her studies at TJC, Mary continued her education at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in Nacogdoches. While at SFA, Mary got involved with the St. Mary’s Catholic Campus Ministry and the community was impactful for her.
“l’d never experienced anything like it,” she remembered. “For my first two years in college, I’d been so used to people looking at me for what they could get from me or what I could do for them, rather than looking at me and what my true identity was, which is a daughter.
“I started meeting people who had such a deep relationship with God, and it just beamed from them,” she continued. “They didn’t have to convince me of anything because I never didn’t believe the faith. It was almost like there was a fog over me for a few years, and the light that exuded from them broke through that fog for me. I saw that they had something that I wanted, which was a relationship with God.
“I could see that for a long time I searched for intimacy in so many different places,” she explained. “We all look for intimacy in different places before we realize it only comes from God. I began understanding that intimacy came from God and started seeking that relationship with him.”
Encounter with poverty
At SFA, Mary had the opportunity to attend FOCUS Summer Projects in Montana. The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, is an organization that sends missionaries to university campuses to evangelize college students. The FOCUS Summer Projects is a 10-week program of formation, mentorship, and service, where students can grow in their faith.
Participating in summer projects was transformational for Mary, as she was able to grow in good habits, especially in prayer and participation in the sacraments. During one of their service days, Mary had a radical experience with a poor person that touched her heart in significant ways.
While ministering to the homeless in a nearby city, Mary met Amanda, a woman from Alaska, and entered a conversation with her. They talked about life, Alaska, and faith. As the conversation progressed, Mary could see deep faith in this woman, but also many struggles, particularly with homelessness, drugs, and disordered relationships.
“I had never really encountered someone who is poor before,” Mary explained. “I saw her heart desiring God so much and then going to these things around her, like drugs or this guy that was there, thinking that would fill her and make her happy.
“I literally thought to myself, ‘I’m seeing Jesus right now,’” she explained. “Jesus says that you can see him in the poor. I understood at that moment that there was a certain poverty that I wanted to attend to. I wanted to serve because in a very different way, I have been Amanda. And I saw a lot of my friends doing the same thing, just not in such a drastic life-threatening way in terms of drugs and homelessness. I saw so many of my friends going to their spiritual deaths and settling for things that weren’t going to satisfy them.”
The woman at the well
Before leaving for summer projects, the story of the woman at the well in John 4 was impactful for Mary.
“That story changed my life,” she said. “I realized that that woman was me. And the way Jesus approaches her, so gently, is what he did with me.” Mary saw a poverty in Amanda that she also saw in the woman at the well and in her own self. A poverty that Jesus encountered with great gentleness.
“Jesus is so gentle to her,’” Mary explained. “He’s asking her a question and speaking to her out of respect. She had probably not been spoken to with respect by anyone.”
“That’s something that I was experiencing. No one was really wanting to be my friend or just to be in a relationship with me,” she continued. The relationships around her in college were about utility, but Jesus does not approach people to use them.
“He was being normal,” Mary pointed out. “Treating her with dignity. When I went to SFA, I experienced that with the people there. They desired to know me. And Jesus obviously already knew the woman at the well, but he desired to be with her. He desired to be in relationship with her.
“I love how he’s already sitting there before she gets there,” Mary continued. “Jesus knew she was going to go. With our sins, a lot of people think Jesus wouldn’t want to know about that or see that. But Jesus is already there.”
“The woman at the well believed that she shouldn’t be seen by anyone in the town and Jesus just encounters her,” Mary said. “And so, for Amanda, I saw her believing the lie of ‘I have to do this in order to be loved or respected or to have my identity be good.’”
FOCUS, evangelization, and the gentle model of Jesus
Ultimately, encountering Amanda and growing in her relationship with God opened Mary’s eyes to the reality of the poverty within humanity, leading Mary to join FOCUS as a missionary after graduating from SFA.
“There is a poverty of friendship,” Mary said. “And so, that’s why I chose to do FOCUS.”
As a FOCUS missionary, Mary is assigned to the University of Tampa, a private university located in downtown Tampa, Florida. This university is considered an “expansion campus” for FOCUS, meaning this is the first time the university has had FOCUS missionaries. The university also did not have a Catholic campus ministry, which makes this a unique assignment for Mary and her team as they had to build a ministry from the ground up.
The missionaries have been creative with the ways they meet and encounter students. One of the ways they engage students on campus is by “tabling,” as they call it. The team sets up a table on campus and passes out free iced coffees or donuts and engages the students who approach them in conversation.
While tabling, every student is encouraged to fill out a contact card. Within their first week of tabling, Mary’s team collected 300 contact cards from students. They reached out to all 300 students, inviting them to come to Mass, join a Bible study, or participate in social activities. After just one semester, they now have around 100 students attending Sunday Mass, and around 80 students attending weekly bible studies.
Although there is much going on, for Mary and her team it’s still always about the individual student in front of them and seeking to encounter them just as Jesus did with the woman at the well.
“I love getting to know the person in front of me, rather than looking at them as a project,” Mary said. “So, I try to be myself and not have this huge overarching pressure all the time to win this person over. I just have to get to know this person.”
Like Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, real evangelization is always kind, gentle, and patient. It’s about getting to know the person in front of you. This model provided to us by Christ is one we can all follow.
“Jesus could have walked up to the woman at the well and been like, ‘Get it together, girl!’ Mary pointed out with a laugh. But he didn’t. “He was very unassuming. Just gentle.”