--- One of the longest but best weeks of my life so far!
Over winter break, I had the opportunity to attend SLS (Student Leadership Summit) which is a 5-day conference held every other year by FOCUS to equip students from around the world with the tools for becoming missionary disciples. This year it was held in Phoenix, Arizona from December 30th to January 3rd. It would be impossible to recount every single detail of that amazing week so I'll just share some of my favorite memories.
I learned about SLS through my good friend and bible study leader, Taylor. Hearing her speak so passionately about her experience last year at SEEK (a similar conference) convinced me that I should take a chance and sign up. I felt like I was stepping into murky waters with no idea of what was to come. I completely surrendered my need to control everything and put my trust in God. The moment I saw familiar faces congregating in the enormous convention center under the UT flag, I knew it was all part of His bigger plan.
During our first nightly Mass, I was blown away by how many people there were gathered in one room, including priests and deacons from all over the world. Hearing the mass responses from thousands of voices at once was unlike anything I had ever experienced :o It took my breath away and the homily reminded me how much I love the Catholic faith and Jesus.
Over the course of the week, I learned so much from my peers as well as amazing speakers. Each day we heard four keynote speeches on the main stage, two after morning mass and two more at 7:30pm. Let me tell you, these speeches – delivered by beloved people like Father Mike Schmitz and Emily Wilson – blew my mind!! Thankfully, they are posted on YouTube (under FOCUS Catholic) so I can go back to watch them and show my family and friends! During each of these speeches, the inspiring and wise words shared gave me goosebumps. There were also smaller sessions every day that we could choose from. My favorites were from Damon Owens and Jason Evert. I wrote down key points in my journal the entire time and was in awe of their ability to touch the hearts of so many people.
"In Jesus' name I declare that I am not fine and in Jesus' name I declare that I am His."
- Fr. Mike Schmitz
Day 2 of SLS was New Year’s Eve!!! My first one away from home but a very special one. After mass and keynotes, a few friends and I had the opportunity to walk around the area called ‘Mission Way’ where different vendors and organizations had booths. It was so cool to speak with different nuns and see the variety of ways to get involved in mission trips and service projects. We even won a game of Charades and the prize was a rosary made by a sister who prayed for the person who would receive it <3 Conversing with nuns from different orders (including a secular one) and even having a deeper conversation with a sister made them seem more approachable. They are so genuine and truly exemplify the heart of God.
We rang in the New Year with a variety of entertainment including a ventriloquist act and magic show. During Matt Maher’s concert, he sang Lord I Need You, Grace is Enough, and Hold Us Together (some of my favorite songs!!) I really felt the words and threw my arms up in praise (especially during the lyric “this is the 1st day of the rest of your life!!”) I got teary eyed many times looking at my sorority sisters and thinking how lucky I am to be here surrounded by beautiful people. It was really weird to not be with my family and getting Happy New Year texts an hour before midnight because of the time change. But, I knew they were with me in spirit. We had a countdown and balloon drop and literally five minutes after midnight we entered adoration and EVERYONE knelt down in praise. Then someone started Salve Regina which brought tears to my eyes because I was reminded of our Mother’s love for us! It was so beautiful!!! I cannot express how much that moment meant to me. To start a New Year in the presence in Jesus! What a gift :')
Day 3 of SLS brought some clarity on how I can lead my own bible study this upcoming semester. That night, we had a two-hour adoration including a procession where priests passed the monstrance as they walked around the room. It was like Jesus was literally walking through the crowd to reach out to each of us and call us by our name! One of my friends in my small group described the way the priests looked at the monstrance with so much love and how God looks at us like that times infinity!!! All around me people were encountering God, some for the first time!! The room felt ignited with deep emotion and love. When the monstrance approached our section, the light was shining directly in my eyes and I knew it was Jesus. I saw His face. I felt completely seen and known by Him. Then, I think at that moment the band started singing some of my favorite lyrics ever from the song Build My Life,
“Holy, there is no one like You
There is none beside You
Open up my eyes in wonder
And show me who You are
And fill me with Your heart
And lead me in Your love to those around me
I will build my life upon your love it is a firm foundation
I will put my trust in you alone and I will not be shaken.”
I felt the impact of those words more than ever before. I raised my hands to the sky and whispered “I love you” to Jesus.
A key part of SLS was our small groups where we uplifted each other and discussed our experiences. I was lucky enough that most of the girls in my small group were also in my bible study so I was already comfortable talking about personal topics with them. And, I got to meet and bond with four other incredible women :) During our final night, my small group had a four hour conversation in the hotel lobby about deep topics and random ones like periods and boys. It was SO GOOD!! So much wisdom and encouragement from beautiful women of God! One of my favorite things shared was that “God is like the parent that records their kid being tree #3 in a play” Even if we feel inadequate and messy, he loves us unconditionally and is so proud of us.
Leaving the conference, I felt more at peace than I have in a while. I was excited to see my family and enjoy the rest of winter break at home. But, I was also scared for what obstacles I would face in practicing my faith and honoring God through my words and actions. During the following weeks, I found myself seeing God in everyone and everything. Inspired by the words of the conference, I opened up to having more intentional conversations.
I am grateful for my Catholic-based education in middle school and high school because I believe they set the foundation. I didn’t know what living my faith in college would look like and I have to say it has surpassed my expectations thus far. Although I don’t attend a Catholic university, I am grateful to have a well-established Catholic center with FOCUS missionaries, a sorority which holds spirituality as a pillar, and friends who exemplify God’s light. My SLS experience revealed Jesus’ unconditional and overwhelming love!! I want to share that with the world! We were made to be His disciples! We were MADE FOR MISSION!
Looking back on that incredible time, I long for that same fire ablaze in my heart. Even though the circumstances are different right now, God is always a constant. Like I trusted Him then, I put my complete trust in God who meets us in the midst of our struggles.
I hope you enjoyed this little storytime. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a FOCUS conference, do it!! You won't regret it :)
"Do small things with great love" - Mother Teresa