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An invitation led this young adult to become a FOCUS missionary

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As he headed off to college, Evan Heitman felt he was missing something. Call it passion or vibrancy or purpose, whatever it was, he didn’t have it. “In college, there’s all these expectations of self-discovery and my peers had these things that were driving them,” he said. “I was wrestling with my identity. I wondered if God had something to do with what I was going through.”


Now, a year out of college, Heitman has found his purpose, at least for the next two years: ministering to college students as a FOCUS missionary at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. 


While studying at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Protestant and later Catholic friends invited him into a deeper relationship with God. It made all the difference in his life. “I want to offer students that same opportunity that I was given to be transformed by (God),” he said.


Heitman, now a parishioner of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, attended an Episcopal church most Sundays growing up. But faith wasn’t that important to him. “It wasn’t a big part of how I saw myself or how I made decisions or how I looked at the world,” he said.


One day during his first year of college, a friend from high school invited Heitman to a Christian praise and worship night. The speaker shared about his sister — who had died from cancer when she was 17. “It was such a raw story and I think I had a sanitized view of religion. I basically cried the whole time, which was not what I expected,” he said. “It seemed like a vibrancy shone through that night that I had been looking for. I wanted to figure out, is there more to this?”


So, he dived in, joining a Bible study, going on a mission trip, and attending more praise and worship nights. He wanted to believe that there was a God who loved him, but he found it almost too good to be true. “The story of that year was God showing up and comforting me,” he said. “God met me in those feelings of listlessness that I had and offered me the purpose I had been so hungry for.”


In his third year, Heitman began to look into Catholicism when a friend of his entered the Catholic Church. After studying, he found he disagreed with two Protestant principles: sola scripture, the belief that the Bible is the only authority for the practice of faith, and justification by faith alone, rather than through faith and good works. After reading John 6, he became convinced that the Eucharist was truly Christ’s body and blood. Attending Palm Sunday Mass was the clincher.


“Between the music and the drum and processing into the church, it was this religious experience engaging all of my senses. There was a certain grandeur to it, like I was participating in something so much larger than myself,” said Heitman. Later he attended a Presbyterian service, where he keenly felt the juxtaposition of the two experiences. “That was the moment I was like, I’m going to become Catholic,” he said.


During his last year at the university, he attended the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes at the Catholic campus ministry. It was there that he was introduced to FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), an organization whose members serve college campus ministries.


One FOCUS missionary and a convert named Joe Zuccaro helped Heitman through the process. “He had a really big impact on me, helping me understand practically what I was getting into and how it was to live this Catholic faith I was stepping into,” said Heitman. On Easter of 2019, Heitman was received into the Catholic Church.


After graduation, Heitman spent a year working in Northern Virginia before deciding to become a FOCUS missionary. This school year, he’s at Miami University alongside his old friend Joe, ministering to college students who may be searching for the same sense of meaning that he was. 


Heitman still looks back in amazement at how his whole journey began with one simple invitation. “(My friend) could have invited someone else instead of me or I could have had homework, or any other thing could’ve happened where I wouldn’t have gone. Things might have turned out similarly, but they might not have,” he said. “I’ve seen in my own life the power of an invitation.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020