Below are excerpts from the November 2016 issue of The Long Island Catholic Magazine.
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Faith sharing at Stony Brook University expanded this year with the addition of small groups. Led by seven students, the outreach goes beyond the Catholic students on campus to include all students in need of support and who want to know more about Jesus. Pictured (left to right) in the first row: Raeltin Clavin, Stephanie Catarino, Amanda Dias, Kaitlyn Colgan. Second row (left to right): Tommy Imbornoni, Brian Arnold, Mathews Thankachan.
Small student-led faith groups guide students through relationships with Christ and each other
By Lena Pennino-Smith
Each week, several college students gather in dorms and lounges at Stony Brook University to read Scripture, meditate upon it, discuss their thoughts and feelings and then enjoy each other’s company while munching on snacks. The university has more than 25,000 students and only one Catholic campus minister.
“It’s bigger than a lot of cities,” said Joanne Buonocore, a campus minister and an advisor for the Newman Center, a Catholic club found on secular campuses. “In a school so large, it’s easy to get lost … You might go the whole day without someone ‘knowing’ you.”
Taking her cue from Jesus, who befriended and formed 12 disciples, Buonocore started a new effort: small groups. These Bible-sharing groups are led by the students themselves. The purpose: to encounter Jesus through the Gospel, to encourage prayer and to create pockets of Christian communities where students can be known and loved.
The heart of this program is the students who are the evangelizers — they lead the group and learn from each other. The program began last spring with an enthusiastic response. This semester, there are seven small groups, with approximately 55 participants.
“The students are the superstars,” said Buonocore. “They are my heroes. They want so much for people to feel community and not feel lonely. They love God so much that they go out on a limb even though they might be labeled ‘Jesus freaks.’”
But going out on a limb can be the start of something amazing. For Amanda Dias, 20, her college faith journey began when an enthusiastic friend named Mariya texted her, “Are you Christian?”
Dias responded, “Yes.”
That was all her friend needed to hear. Mariya told Dias, “Come with me to this club (Newman). You are going to love it!”
When Dias agreed to be a small-group leader last semester, she chose Mariya as her “significant member” to help lead the group. Together, they prepare for weekly meetings.
“It deepened our friendship simply because we were able to share so much more with each other, like now we don’t hold back on anything,” Dias said. “We realized we feel the same way on so many different issues, and even the ones we don’t agree on we are able to see each other’s side. It’s so wonderful to have someone to share all your secrets and silly things.
“I like to think that Mariya and I created a space that was safe and full of love and support,” said Dias, who also volunteered to be a student leader this semester and is a parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in West Hempstead. They even created “GroupMe,” a private group text called the “God Squad” where members chat, invite people to lunch or ask for prayers.
“It was just so nice to have a group of people to share all these things with,” said Dias. “Honestly, it was just like a family and I couldn’t have asked for a better small group!”
This program is different than other Catholic experiences on campus. Buonocore jokes sometimes campus ministry is like “fishing in the aquarium” because the students who join activities are the same people she sees at Mass. But with this program, the student leaders invite “their suite mates, room mates and class mates. People that I would never see,” said Buonocore. “Just by being themselves, they reach out to those who are lonely. They know that everyone is searching for something, really the same thing (God). Everyone is looking for meaning, community, something to live and die for. And they know, this is it.”
To train for this ministry, student leaders attend an out-of-state Evangelical Catholic workshop that gets people thinking outside the box, or outside church walls. Its focus? How to nurture a relationship with Christ and others through small groups and relational ministry.
Although students learned facilitator skills, Buonocore believes the most important lesson they learn is “You can do this.”
Raeltin Clavin, 20, may be the president of the Newman Club, but she acknowledges she doesn’t have all the answers. She was asked to lead a small group, but was hesitant.
“I didn’t think I had enough experience,” she said. “I don’t know everything about Scripture.”
Clavin, a nursing major and parishioner of St. Christopher’s Parish in Baldwin, decided to accept the assignment, and found she loved reflecting on the Gospel.
“God was pushing me to go for it,” said Clavin. “For a long time, I would tell myself, ‘Over the summer, I will sit down and read the Bible,’ but I never did. This forced me to do it, to go through a passage and really understand it for myself.”
During small group sessions, her understanding deepened even more. “I hear what someone else had to say that I never would have thought of myself,” Clavin said. “I’m glad to tell people that I’m learning with them. I’m glad to be that person in small group who always welcomes them to learn and find out more about the Catholic faith.”
Her group became a family. In the spirit of college students who like to have adventures and stay up late, the group reads the Gospel, shares insights and then sprints to Carvel for ice cream or goes hiking on the bluffs until 4 a.m.
“You wouldn’t think that Wednesday would be a day you looked forward to, but this was something that helped keep us going,” said Clavin.
Stony Brook is an active campus with many spiritual opportunities: retreats, mission trips and service projects such as the Midnight Run, which helps the homeless in New York City. There are also many weekly prayer opportunities.
For Tommy Imbornoni, small group is just one of the many ways he stays rooted in his faith. Imbornoni, 19, loves attending Catholic prayer opportunities such as recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet on Mondays, adoration of the Eucharist on Wednesdays and Mass on Sundays.
He acknowledges that while he is comfortable attending church activities, others are not. Students may be intimidated by the “reciting of prayers such as the Nicene Creed … and knowing when to sit, stand and kneel at church.”
Imbornoni, an engineering major and small group leader, likes the missionary spirit of small groups. Instead of bringing students to the Church, he enjoys “bringing Christ directly to others.”
“Everyone in the group gets something, a closer connection to Christ and friends,” said Imbornoni, a graduate of Chaminade High School and parishioner of St. Martin of Tours in Bethpage.
Other student leaders are Kaitlyn Colgan, Mathews Thankachan and Stephanie Catarino. Brian Arnold, a Ph.D. candidate in physics, is active with small groups.
Catarino, 21, a sociology major, calls campus ministry one of the “greatest blessings of her life.” Although she grew up culturally Catholic in New Rochelle, she really found her faith in Stony Brook. Catarino was confirmed through the RCIA program, discovered her love for Scripture through a Lectio Divina group and is now a small group leader.
In small group, she loves welcoming people. “When you start college, you tell yourself it will be easy to make friends, but really it’s hard to find a community you are comfortable with,” Catarino said.
She finds in student-led small groups, students can share their deepest feelings about God in one breath, and in another complain about professors assigning too much work. “It’s so relatable,” said Catarino. “Small groups impacted me so much. If I was stressing about something, there was always a passage that would speak to me.”
The student-led small groups program has been so effective at Stony Brook University, the Office of Young Adult, Youth and Campus Ministry is expanding the concept to Hofstra University, Long Island University Post and Adelphi University.
By Lena Pennino-smith