February 18, 2022

Young adult embraces his mission to lead others to Christ at state’s largest university

At Indiana University in Bloomington, five young adults work as a team to bring the joy of Jesus to the students on campus. The members of IU’s FOCUS team —Fellowship of Catholic University Students—are Brennan Skerjanec, left, Gabby Hancock, Lizzy Joslyn, Gabe McHaffie and Lizz White. (Submitted photo)

At Indiana University in Bloomington, five young adults work as a team to bring the joy of Jesus to the students on campus. The members of IU’s FOCUS team —Fellowship of Catholic University Students—are Brennan Skerjanec, left, Gabby Hancock, Lizzy Joslyn, Gabe McHaffie and Lizz White. (Submitted photo)

12th in an occasional series

(Editor’s note: In this series, The Criterion is featuring young adults who have found a home in the Church and strive to live their faith in their everyday life.)

By John Shaughnessy

Gabe McHaffie keeps two important thoughts in mind as he moves among the 45,000 students on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington.

An IU graduate himself, the 29-year-old McHaffie knows to look beyond the crowds of the state’s largest university and focus on the reality that every student there has their own individual dreams, struggles, hopes, heartbreaks, joys and doubts.

He also believes that many of these young women and men are searching for someone or something that will be lasting and meaningful in their lives.

And he’s made it his mission to help them discover what will fulfill that desire.

“I can’t think of any place I’d rather be,” McHaffie says. “This is the place where men and women are going to choose who they will be for the rest of their lives. So, there’s really not a more opportune place to be to bring people closer to Christ.”

In pursuit of that goal, McHaffie has spent the past five years at IU as the campus team leader for FOCUS—Fellowship of Catholic University Students—a national organization that invites college students into a relationship with Christ and the Church.

“I’ve been able to see lives change,” he says. “Souls in distress have come to know peace and love. It’s amazing to see what Jesus is doing in people’s lives, time and time again.”

He has also seen young people struggle with and lose their faith, including the story of what happened to a friend who rejected his Catholic faith for a life of partying.

But before he shares that story, McHaffie tells another one. It’s the story of the moment that changed everything for him and that always guides him in his mission at IU.

‘I’m going to take care of you’

McHaffie’s life-changing moment occurred when he was a freshman in high school and a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese. It was a time when he was struggling with his faith because of what was happening to his beloved maternal grandmother, “Mimi.”

An artist, Marianne Haerle was the one who encouraged and inspired McHaffie’s own artistic efforts as a painter, even transforming a dining room into an art studio where they worked together. Their closeness made it all the more painful for him when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer.

No one outside the family knew of his grandmother’s cancer when McHaffie went on a Catholic youth retreat, and he didn’t tell anybody there about it. Kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, he prayed, “Jesus, if you’re really there and you are who they say you are, and that you take care of your children, I want you to heal my Mimi.”

Later that evening, when everyone was sharing their prayer experience, McHaffie was on the verge of walking away from that gathering when a youth minister sitting across from him looked at him and said something that stunned him.

“She actually said she had been praying for me, and she said she had a message from God if I’d like to hear it,” he recalls. “I was dealing with some anger and a lot of sadness, but I said, ‘Sure.’ She told me, ‘God says it’s OK to let go of your grandma and he takes care of his children.’

“It penetrated my heart that I not only heard the words that I had used in my prayer, but God was talking to me, ‘I’m going to take care of you.’ In that moment, I met God in a really tangible, personal way. That’s when I became a disciplined follower of Christ. I was actually seeking ways to welcome him into my life and orient my life to him.”

A call to go beyond

By the time his grandmother had died, McHaffie had embraced a faith that believes God had also taken care of her in the best way he saw fit.

That’s the starting point for all Catholics—embracing the faith and seeking a relationship with God. McHaffie also knows that Christ calls people to go beyond that point—to share the faith, to help bring others to a life-sustaining bond with Jesus.

McHaffie knows that call can be a challenge for Catholics in any setting, and it can be even more daunting at a state university filled with people from many different backgrounds and beliefs.

Undeterred, he believes the best approach with IU students is often to connect with people one on one, to just offer them a simple invitation. It’s the same approach that Christ frequently used in his ministry on Earth, he figures, so there’s no reason to make it complicated.

“We go into their lives, to the places they are—like going to the gym or where they eat. It’s very intimate,” he says. “Not only going into their life but inviting them into your life—sharing the things you enjoy and also who you love, which is Christ.

“It’s about being able to show somebody who he is. We stay rooted in Christ so hopefully we look more like him every day.”

McHaffie uses the word “we” because he’s joined on the IU campus by the four FOCUS missionaries he leads: Gabby Hancock, Lizzy Joslyn, Brennan Skerjanec and Lizz White.

“Our biggest tool is our Bible studies,” he says. “We go out on campus and invite people we meet randomly or at lunch or after Mass. We want to build them up for Christ and then send them out to do the same for others.”

There are victories in this approach and also losses, and sometimes they even occur with the same person. It’s a reality that leads McHaffie to share the outcome of “the most difficult and beautiful conversation” he’s had with an IU student and friend.

‘You see how it changes their faith’

His friend had embraced the Catholic faith and took part in a Bible study group, but then he also became involved in what McHaffie calls “the party lifestyle.”

“You can’t live in both worlds,” McHaffie says. “It was eating at him. He asked to talk with me. He said he didn’t agree with the Church’s teaching on sex and drugs. He left the conversation saying he wasn’t going to be part of the Church anymore. He chose the party lifestyle.

“Over the course of the next year, it never satisfied him. Eventually, he hit a rock bottom experience, and he realized that when he was the happiest, he had Jesus at the center of his life. He reached out to me and other friends who wouldn’t give up on him. Now, he’s one of the strongest Catholics I know.”

That experience with his friend took McHaffie back to a defining moment in his own life.

In his senior year at Carmel High School, McHaffie wavered in his decision to attend IU for college.

“I was afraid to go to IU at the time,” he recalls. “I had good friends who went to IU and lost their faith. It was really sad and scary.”

During that time in 2011, he attended a Catholic men’s conference in Indianapolis called, “Lions Breathing Fire.” One of the speakers was Curtis Martin, the founder of FOCUS.

“He talked about how a man is called to be on a mission and to evangelize—which actually gave me confidence to go to IU. I could feel the zeal growing up in me. At that time, I was not afraid to share what God had done in my life—if people asked me about it. But I wasn’t evangelizing or leading other people to Christ.”

McHaffie approached Martin after his talk, introduced himself, and told him that one day he would work as a FOCUS missionary.

“I went to IU wanting to know what it was like to be a missionary for Christ,” he says. “That really changed how I operated in college. It led me to a more intense prayer life, a holy hour every day, daily Masses and more regular confessions. I learned to lead a Bible study.”

After graduating from IU in 2015, he became a FOCUS missionary at the University of Virginia for one year, followed by a year at the University of Miami in Florida. He returned to IU as a FOCUS team leader in 2017—all with the goal of bringing others closer to Christ, including the people who contribute financially to him so he can pursue that goal.

“We fundraise for our salaries,” he says. “You get to share the faith with [donors] too. It’s not just through their financial contributions, it’s also their prayers that show how they care for me and how they care to see people’s lives change. And you see how it changes their faith, too.”

‘I want to give him more’

More than anything, McHaffie sees how the road he has chosen has touched his life and deepened his faith.

“One of the reasons that walking with people is so beneficial is that it lets you reflect on your own life. They become a mirror for you.

“The one word I would use to describe my relationship with Christ is that he is my friend. Friendship is deep, loving and sacrificial. When I talk to couples deeply in love with each other, they say that he or she is my best friend. With friends, there’s always something more you want to learn about them. I want to learn more about him to journey with him. I want to give him more.”

Another day on campus is unfolding, another day to extend more potentially life-changing invitations. McHaffie has a joy just thinking about the possibilities.

“There’s a massive love that is so overwhelmingly powerful, and it’s God. Everybody needs to know that.” †

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