By Kirsten Bublitz, Together Let Us Go Forth Magazine
FLAGSTAFF — Northern Arizona University (NAU) junior Isaiah Padilla couldn’t hide his excitement as he explained the itinerary for Welcome Week at Holy Trinity Newman Center: “We climb a mountain, we go into underground volcano tubes, we have a dunk contest, we run across campus in the dark without adult supervision. It’s great.”
Padilla attended nearly all of the Newman Center’s Welcome Week events in the fall of 2021. Welcome Week takes place during the first week each fall semester; clubs and the university host events for students newly on campus or returning to school.
The Newman Center’s events begin the Friday before classes start with a game of “Fugitive” through campus, followed by a lava tube cave hike on Saturday, BBQ and ice cream socials after Masses on Sunday, a luau on the first day of classes, a dunk contest with the NAU men’s basketball team on Tuesday, Carne Asada on Wednesday, Newman Night on Thursday with dinner and a speaker, a New Student Retreat Friday and Saturday, and a hike up Mt. Humphreys on Labor Day.
Padilla transferred to NAU last fall all because he heard of the Newman Center’s reputation from a friend. He’s now preparing to co-lead a Bible study with a student he met at last year’s Welcome Week. He’s thankful for friends he made at the Newman Center, who have helped his faith to become a burning fire.
“In order for a fire to survive, it needs to be in an oxygen-rich environment. At my old college, there was zero oxygen. We had a Newman building, but there was no community,” Padilla said. “Whereas, here, it’s basically a bonfire.”
Basketball, free food, and genuine friendship
For some students, what first draws them into the Newman Center is the outdoor basketball court. Padilla sees Welcome Week and the Newman Center’s basketball court as a middle ground for students, as a gray area between Catholics and the secular world. Playing basketball at the Newman Center could lead them to stepping inside and encountering the Lord. It’s the same with Welcome Week: a stepping stone for something bigger.
Padilla is most looking forward to “Fugitive” for the 2022 Welcome Week, and he’s excited to build connections with Catholics, ex-Catholics, non-Catholics, and everyone in between.
“Outreach is now a much bigger part of my life than it used to be. I want to make as many connections as possible,” Padilla said. “I genuinely care for these people.”
Senior Gemma DeSimone made lifelong connections at the Newman Center during Welcome Week 2021. DeSimone grew up hearing about the Newman Center from her dad, who graduated from NAU. It wasn’t until DeSimone’s roommate invited her to Carne Asada Night that she encountered the same welcoming community her dad did all those years ago.
There, DeSimone met FOCUS missionary Marie Foley. Marie invited DeSimone to lunch, which was followed by an invitation into Marie’s Bible study. As the friendship formed, Marie promised DeSimone a spot in her car for the Humphreys hike; also, in Marie’s car that day were two students, who DeSimone now calls her closest friends.
“I was able to meet people who were genuine friends, rather than shallow or artificial,” DeSimone said.
Sharing God’s love with others
As DeSimone continued to find community at the Newman Center, she invited her roommates to Bible studies and other events. Although her roommates never joined her, she noticed that as she grew in her relationship with the Lord, she was able to have open, faith-filled conversations with them.
DeSimone owes her newfound faith to the people she met at the Newman Center, especially Marie. The two tearfully said goodbye at the end of the spring 2021 semester.
“I was like, ‘Marie you’re the reason.’ And she’s like, ‘No, He’s the reason.’ I was like, ‘I know, but you got me to come back.’ I truly thanked her for that,” DeSimone said.
Returning to NAU this fall for her senior year, DeSimone is looking forward to welcoming new students.
“I want to be the Marie for somebody,” DeSimone said.
“I didn’t really know what I was coming to when I came in the first place, and I think that’s the way it works. You can be a student who has literally no idea what it is and still feel welcome and feel like you could belong,” DeSimone said. “There is a genuine community on campus that they might not find anywhere else.”
Feeding students’ bodies and souls
Being the chaplain at Holy Trinity Newman Center the past 13 years, Father Matt Lowry desires as many students as possible to know where the Newman Center is. Welcome Week events like the luau and Humphrey’s Hike put the Newman Center on students’ radar.
Lowry recalled that a few years ago, of the 17 Welcome Week events not hosted by the university, the Newman Center was organizing 11 of them. Of those 11 events, most of them include a home-cooked meal. Last year, the Newman Center served 1,660 meals during Welcome Week and 5,000 over the course of the school year.
“A lot of students are worried about their next meal, so it’s very practical that we do meals,” Lowry said. “Jesus fed people. It’s also communion.”
Aside from the free food, it’s the genuine connections that keep new students coming back. Lowry recalled one student who encountered a FOCUS missionary last fall. The missionary asked questions, trying to get to know the student as they walked through campus.
“All of a sudden the student said, ‘You don’t have to do this. Everybody wants to know all about you, but they don’t really care.’ The missionary said, ‘That sounds hurtful if that’s your experience, but here’s what you’ve told me,’ and [the missionary] repeated back everything that she had told her. [The missionary] told this student how she was glad she had met her. The girl just started crying.
“That’s how it starts. For someone to get to know Jesus, the first step is actually coming to know us. We are the medium He chooses to work through,” Lowry said.
Lowry remembered walking through campus during the COVID pandemic, in 2020, trying to encounter students, but it was difficult, with few students on campus. In comparison, during the fall of 2021, more than 1,600 students attended the Newman Center’s Welcome Week events.
“One of the missionaries commented, ‘Doing outreach at my previous campus, it was like we were trying to get minnows out of a bucket, but at NAU it’s like a salmon run, and the salmon are just slapping me in the face because there are so many coming,’” Lowry recalled.
For the NAU Newman Center, outreach looks like the FOCUS missionaries playing sand volleyball in central quad or Lowry riding his skateboard through campus. The missionaries and Lowry meet students where they are and invite them into something more with a simple invitation to events like the luau or Carne Asada Night.
“I believe that we are the field hospital that Pope Francis speaks about. A field hospital is not in a safe part of the city. The field hospital is out on the battle ground among the people where they are getting wounded,” Lowry said. “That’s where we are: meeting students with love, with patience and compassion and with open arms to welcome them back.”
Building for the future
With the Together, Let Us Go Forth ~ Juntos Sigamos Adelante Campaign, Holy Trinity Newman Center will receive $4.25 million to put towards a new building. Lowry is excited to have a new Newman Center that will look like a church. He still meets seniors who stumble upon the Newman Center their last semester, not even knowing there’s a Catholic church on campus.
“With a visible building, every student on this campus will know where the Newman Center is,” Lowry said. “The new building will be so beautiful on the outside that people can’t wait to see what it looks like on the inside.”
Until the new building is built, Lowry always looks forward to a new group of sons and daughters God sends his way each Welcome Week.
“We get to help form the next generation of missionary disciples. Working with young people is filled with so much hope. It renews the Church,” Lowry said. “These graduates go off to be youth ministers or volunteer in their parishes, and they change their communities. I’m excited to walk with the next group of people that’s going to do that for our Church and world.”
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