CONWAY -- The last thing 21-year-old Christy Fili would have expected to be doing in college was leading a weekly Catholic Bible study.
After the death of her 10-year-old brother from an aneurysm, Fili said she pushed God out of her life at only 12 years old.
"I went completely atheist for six years," said Fili, a junior at the University of Central Arkansas from Benton. "I went to Search when I was 18 and kind of realized I was tired of being mad at God, so I tried to get my religious life back on track and start a relationship with the God everyone loves."
However, it was an Evangelical Catholic retreat in 2010 that gave her and many other UCA and Hendrix College students the desire to start an evangelical ministry on the campuses.
"It was an intense spiritual conversion that made me realize God was real in the first place. I just realized my purpose was not just for myself," Fili said. "I thought leading others to God, to realize what I had got from that, is what I wanted to do."
In August 2011, Catholic Campus Ministry, housed at UCA, started a three-year alliance with Evangelical Catholic, based in Madison, Wis. The non-profit organization partners with colleges, parishes and dioceses to implement Catholic evangelization programs. UCA is one of only four universities in the country, including Harvard, to be recognized as an established alliance, according to its website, evangelicalcatholic.org.
During this past year, trainers from the organization have met with students interested in learning how to evangelize and advise them on how to best lead the Bible study groups. They will continue visiting the campus for the next two years, said Deacon Richard Papini, the director of Catholic Campus Ministry at UCA and Hendrix.
Papini said the goal is to bring people into the Bible study groups that will eventually create new leaders who can break off to form more groups.
"We're disciplining and training and growing people as Catholic Christian leaders," Papini said. "(The program) utilizes the Bible, it utilizes the catechism, it utilizes various documents like Vatican II documents' writings of the Church fathers and saints."
UCA sophomore Ashton Wills, 20, of Russellville said after attending an EC training camp last summer, she wanted to share what she learned with others.
"I was really on fire for God and I wanted to share that. I wanted to encourage others to seriously pursue their walk with God and develop their Catholic faith," Wills said.
During the Lenten season, Wills said her group of about seven students followed the Sunday Gospel readings but also took opportunities to get out in the community.
"I took my group out once to the cemetery at St. Joseph's Parish (in Conway)," Willis said. "We did a meditation about suffering and carrying our cross."
Papini said creating Bible study groups has been a "dream" of his since becoming director 13 years ago. Though the students started small groups in 2010 before becoming part of the EC Alliance program, the concepts they are taking away from the professional training will help fulfill the Catholic mission, Papini said.
"The Church exists to evangelize ... That's what we're trying to do is evangelize students to Christ through the Catholic Church," Papini said. "To begin or strengthen a relationship with Jesus Christ and of the Catholic faith."
Samantha Deragowski, 22, who graduated from Hendrix in May and hails from Springfield, Mo., was confirmed in the Church in Easter 2011. Though she had been raised Catholic, her parents' divorce caused her to turn away from God, she said. After God began "looking for her," Deragowski said, she became involved with Catholic Campus Ministry and was going through the RCIA program when she was asked to become a Bible study leader.
At first, Deragowski said she had only two members go to her Bible study group at Hendrix, a liberal arts school founded by the United Methodist Church but which she described as "extremely atheist."
"I can't thank God enough for Evangelical Catholic. I would not be the strong Catholic I am, I would be a lukewarm atheist," Deragowski said. "By the end of the school year, I had at least 30 people on fire with their faith, attending daily Mass and going to confession on a regular basis."
Though Deragowski did not lead a Bible study group this past year, she was part of the administrative staff at Catholic Campus Ministry and is still seeing the fruits of her labor blossom into new church members.
After attending Bible study, Deragowski's friend Anna Roane, 21, who also graduated from Hendrix in May, became Catholic at the Easter Vigil in April.
"The main thing about the group is they began to explain Catholicism. I definitely had misconceptions about the faith," said Roane, who is from Albuquerque, N.M. "I think the thing that really grabbed my attention is everyone was open-minded and the message there wasn't trying to showcase their religion or their beliefs. It was about welcoming and community."
Starting Aug. 6, Evangelical Catholic will host a five-day evangelization training camp open to college students and pastoral staff.
Papini hopes the camp will draw more Catholic college students from around the diocese to the Bible study groups and help them realize their full spiritual potential, like UCA alum Austin Franke.
Franke, a Little Rock resident, said he will become an EC trainee/intern this year, where he will learn peer-to-peer mentorship and retreat planning in Wisconsin.
The two-year program will send him back to UCA in his second year to work as a spiritual minister.
"There's a lot of negative connotations with our Church and I want to jump in to explain to people what the Catholic Church is and I can do that with Evangelical Catholic," Franke said.
Franke said he hopes the charismatic approach to the faith he'll learn as a trainee will resonate with UCA and Hendrix students.
"I definitely think that can happen at UCA and Hendrix too, to make Catholicism popular again."
Evangelical Catholic will host a five-day evangelization training camp at St. John Center in Little Rock for college students and pastoral staff Aug. 6-10.
Registration is $200 and includes food and lodging during the training.
For information, contact Liz Tingquist at (501) 664-0340 or .
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