ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Ben Johnston has earned a lot of “frequent passenger miles” at the tender age of 20.
Johnston, who hails from Michigan, is serving his second year as a missionary for National Evangelization Team Ministries based in West St. Paul.
From mid-September to early March, Johnston’s 11-member NET Ministries retreat team had conducted 88 retreats at parishes and schools in eight states, including Michigan and Nebraska.
Through May, his team’s 15-passenger van will be on a roll in states in the South and up the East Coast to Virginia, as team members conduct about six retreats a week the rest of this school year.
Founded in 1981 in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, NET Ministries trains Catholics ages 18-28 to serve as missionaries sharing Christ with youth in grades six to 12. Nine NET teams will conduct about 1,200 retreats this year. In addition, five discipleship teams are assigned to specific parishes or schools to form more long-term relationships and help build up youth ministry, Johnston said.
These young adults navigate long hours on the road away from their families to share the word of God with youth across multiple states.
Johnston experienced NET discipleship efforts for three years at Lake Michigan Catholic High School in St. Joseph, Michigan. They inspired Johnston to join NET after graduating from high school in 2020. After training for the ministry that August, he hit the road in the fall with a retreat team.
“I wanted to serve others in such a way that they knew it was Christ working in me, and that they would be transformed and know that God is worth loving,” Johnston told The Catholic Spirit, archdiocesan newspaper of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
NET Ministries is an uplifting, but not always easy, ride, Johnston said. Travel can be 15 minutes to the next site, or up to six hours, six days a week in the van, leavened by team members building friendships, praying together with Scripture, listening to spiritual podcasts or having time to “jam out to some bops (music) and take amazing naps,” he said.
Johnston and other NET team members stay the night before a retreat with one or more host families from the parish or school they will be serving. It is a great gift of “warm, welcoming, good people,” with team members typically joining the family for dinner and conversation, he said.
It’s also where he can do laundry, sleep and relax. If a family has young children, there’s often time to play, he said. If the dad is a football fan, Johnston might watch a game with him. If there’s an edgy teen at home, there might be an invitation from Johnston: “Let’s play ‘Halo,'” the video game.
Team members generally try to keep the spotlight on the family, he said, and show Christ’s love by example.
“We’re not there just to eat and sleep,” he said. “We try to invest in (the family) when we’re there.” That means “being a genuinely good person to these people,” asking to help, being grateful, being a good houseguest and showing interest in their lives, Johnston said.
“It’s just giving,” he said, but not in a “hey-do-you-know-Jesus” kind of way.
On retreat mornings, Johnston wakes up about 6 a.m., takes a shower, prays for a half-hour alone and packs his bags — as, he said, “we live out of a suitcase,” along with one backpack and a duffel bag.
One-on-one time each day with the Lord is very important, he said.
“It’s so essential for everything,” Johnston said. “If I didn’t pray every day, I would just keel over. We need the Lord to sustain us tangibly, and that is how we are able to receive.”
Johnston typically prays the Liturgy of the Hours, reads Scripture and then focuses on “just some mental prayer and reflection.”
The host home typically “puts out a big old breakfast,” he said with a laugh. “Like, ‘Here’s all the food in my pantry.’ That’s awesome.”
Then he helps pack the trailer with retreat materials for skits, Bibles for prayer time, soccer balls and card games for icebreakers, “slapping it all in there,” Johnston said.
Arriving at the retreat site an hour before its start, the young people pray as a team. Each has a retreat role. The “set-up person,” team and retreat leaders tour the facility, the group unpacks the trailer, and they discuss the day’s schedule and prepare for the students.
Johnston’s team conducts retreats six days a week. Sometimes the seventh day is for travel, but most often its focus is “just spending time together as a team,” he said, “seeing some sites, getting outside, just kind of existing as a normal human being for a little bit.”
Missing family celebrations can be tough, he said. And the young men on his team were high school athletes who miss regular exercise.
“We have no time on the road to do substantial workouts or runs,” he said. Free time is minimal, which means skipping small pleasures like reading books and scrolling on cellphones.
But one day each month is what he called “a holy day of no obligation” — a true day off. “We have nothing on the schedule,” he said. Typically, Johnston sleeps in, explores the town, goes shopping, calls his family.
The ultimate goal of a NET retreat is “wanting (students) to encounter Jesus,” said David Rinaldi, NET Ministries’ director of mission. With many retreatants enrolled in confirmation classes or religious education, Rinaldi said, many young people are learning things about God, but not getting to know him.
“We exist as a ministry because we want the young person to encounter Jesus, not just learn about him, not (just) to play games and have fun on a retreat, but the whole goal of the retreat is that they come to know the love of God for themselves,” he said.
Those experiences happen a lot, he said. Missionaries regularly submit feedback from retreat attendees — what NET staff call “glory stories,” such as one that read, “I came to this retreat thinking it was going to be dumb, but I now know that God loves me.” Another retreatant wrote that he expected it to be boring, but instead it was fun.
In addition to missionaries traveling to sites, full weekend retreats for young people preparing for confirmation are offered this year at NET Ministries’ headquarters for parishes and schools across the archdiocese. Typically, about 90 students from about five parishes stay at the headquarters Saturday to Sunday, Rinaldi said.
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Umberger is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.