June 19, 2020

Institute to offer creative community in time of isolation

Marian University mentor Joel Kelley double checks the contents of a Missionary Discipleship Institute participant’s box before it is sealed. (Submitted photo)

Marian University mentor Joel Kelley double checks the contents of a Missionary Discipleship Institute participant’s box before it is sealed. (Submitted photo)

By Colleen Schena (Special to The Criterion)

The continual trend of cancellations and postponements defines an uncharacteristically socially empty summer.

While many programs have chosen not to offer summer opportunities for the safety of the participants, one program has adapted in a way that will allow it to continue providing spiritual community and leadership formation to high school participants safely: the Missionary Disciples Institute (MDI). The institute has shifted from the campus of Marian University in Indianapolis to an accessible, online format in three short months.

In previous years, MDI was a weeklong evangelization boot camp sponsored and hosted by Marian. The goal of this experience was to have a group of teenagers encounter others—especially those whom they may not usually come in contact with—and find ways to build community in the greater Indianapolis area.

Because of the coronavirus, institute leaders decided to change this year’s format.

Featuring its own website, online sessions and boxes of materials carefully packed by the college mentors for the high school participants, the institute eagerly anticipates the beginning of “MDI Online” on June 22. MDI made the decision to venture into the online community to encourage the growth of passionate students into driven missionary disciples. Even in the reality of social distancing, a call still rings out to continue proclaiming the Gospel in even the most non-traditional of circumstances.

“MDI Online” is a unique way of embodying this call “to be innovators for the Gospel,” in the words of student director Elizabeth Kassab. She highlighted the accessibility of the virtual format, which offers a healthy geographic variety of students and speakers, as “another way of creating widespread community for the youth of our Church.” This new range has opened MDI to hosting the largest number of participants it will ever have, Kassab noted. Because of this, new college mentors were hired to join the experience.

“I think more than ever, there is a need for missionary disciples,” said Patrick Verhiley, the director of the institute. “We can still move forward in our pursuit of Christ and serving those in our community.”

No matter the complexities of transitioning from an in-person format to an online version, the MDI team is viewing this experience as one of growth to meet spiritual needs in an isolating time. The high school students “want a community to be engaged with, they want to be around peers who are passionate about their faith,” Verhiley said. “We wanted to move forward because there is this longing from the high school students to engage in something.”

Once the decision was prayerfully made, the institute staff pressed forward to create the online encounter. “Planning this institute is like turning a very large ship,” added Verhiley, “it takes a while to turn and change course.”

Both challenges and support alike accompanied the change, he noted. “We have excellent leaders and outstanding people who would step up and support us.”

The love of Christ is still alive and well in the hearts of the participants, mentors, and MDI professionals, commented Kassab. “This work isn’t easy,” she noted, “but we’re here to do it because this is what our God wants of us.”

With the institute set for June 22-26, the team is pleased to see the 85 participating students already building community through lighthearted virtual gatherings, a massive group message and prayer requests.

Mentor and MDI alumnus Patrick Scheidler said in reflecting on this innovative transition, “No matter what is going on in our world, we are still disciples.”

(Colleen Schena is a senior at Marian University in Indianapolis and a member of Holy Family Parish in South Bend, Ind., in the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese.)

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