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From aloha to amen

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The heavy rain that had started the night prior ceased 10 minutes before the gates opened, just in time for the roughly 1,000 students arriving for the new student Luau hosted by the Catholic Campus Ministry Center at George Mason University in Fairfax last month. Months of planning lead up to the Luau, but as students flooded in, filling out raffle tickets, sipping sodas and tossing frisbees, the hard work for the campus ministry staff organizing the event was just starting. 

“The beginning week of the school year is the prime moment (for) meeting students and getting them involved,” said Father James Searby, chaplain and director of Catholic Campus Ministry at George Mason. The Luau offers just that opportunity.

Beginning in April, Father Searby and the campus ministry staff invest hours and roughly $20,000 in funds planning the Luau to ensure its success. Replete with a buffet, ice cream truck, yard games, a mechanical bull ride, and raffles offering a variety of prizes including the cost of textbooks, the event is a huge attraction, drawing upward of 1,800 students on a given year and requiring a campus safety officer to direct traffic. 

Hosted a few days before classes start, the party provides Father Searby more than just a meet and greet with students. 

Through the use of registration cards students fill out upon entering, he collects basic but critical information — names, faiths, interest in Bible study groups — and uses the data to reach out and engage students throughout the school year. 

“(The Luau) has a huge impact,” said Father Searby. “It is the initial point of encounter for friendships. What we want is to have deliberate opportunities for people to make individual friendships. Friendship — real, genuine, deep friendship — is the core of all apostolates. The Luau opens the door to this possibility.” 

Once that door opens, Father Searby doesn’t waste any time. The morning after the Luau, alumni and volunteers descend with their laptops for the “data entry party,” entering all the information collected from students into a database and migrating the data into Salesforce, where the platform’s algorithm sorts the information. 

Using the details in Salesforce, the Bible study student leaders and Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries call, text and email every student who expressed interest, inviting them to a slew of events the following week. Simultaneous to the data entry party behind the scenes, current students organize sporting events for men and women and invite everyone to Sunday Mass and socializing afterward.

“The encounter with new friends and just the sheer size of (the Luau) really opens people up,” said Father Searby. “People come because they ultimately want to be known and it’s a huge event where that could happen. Isn’t that the deepest desire in the human heart? To be known. That is why they come.”

To Father Searby, the Luau — which began about a decade ago and continues to grow — has a far longer and more lasting effect than on just university life. According to Father Searby, George Mason is the largest public research university in Virginia, and of its 38,000 students, 80 percent remain in Northern Virginia after graduation. 

“I am Father to hundreds of souls here,” he said. “College ministry is the seedbed of our future marriages, priests and religious. It is the place where the hunger to be known by God, self and others can be satisfied or atrophy. The future of our parish life begins in college formation and ministry. Future Catholics, families and vocations of our Diocese of Arlington parishes are coming from Mason.”

Bartlett can be reached at Meghan.bartlett@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019