The term “mission field” usually brings to mind developing countries, impoverished communities or regions of the world oppressed by natural disaster and war — not the campus of a public university in a wealthy country, populated by privileged teens and 20-somethings wide-eyed with their first taste of independence.

But that’s exactly where the action is for the mission effort of the young American Catholic church.

“When we think of missionaries, we picture third-world countries, we think of people on the streets. And yet Mother Teresa always said the poverty in America is that which we don’t yet know — it’s the poverty of spirit, the poverty of heart,” said Mary Mueller, UWM Campus Mission director for the Archdiocesan Office of Campus Ministry. “It really is amazing to see just how much our students are starving and might not even realize it. It’s so easy for them to fill that hunger with the most accessible thing.”

“The most accessible thing” is usually a culture that includes heavy drinking or drug use, casual sexual relationships and a lack of real community support. But what if the most accessible thing was the truth offered through the teachings of the Catholic Church?

That’s the idea behind the archdiocesan campus ministry office’s efforts, especially on the campuses of public universities where faith isn’t necessarily part of the school identity.

The archdiocese has offered campus ministry to public universities for a number of decades. Today, that outreach exists at UW-Milwaukee, UW-Whitewater, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. In response to priorities highlighted by the Archdiocesan Synod of 2014, Pete Burds became the director of college campus ministry for the archdiocese to aid in the effort of reaching more students on more campuses.

Since that time, campus ministry staff has launched the Brew City Catholic Missionary Project, an effort to effect meaningful evangelization on the campuses of public universities. Currently, the missionary project exists at UWM, MSOE, and UW- Whitewater, but the campus ministry office hopes to add more universities in future years.

The project employs 12 full-time missionaries between the ages of 22 and 26 who live in community and spend their time at secular colleges doing spiritual mission work and raising the profile of resources offered through the ministry’s on-campus locations.

On UWM’s eastside campus, this takes the form of “Toasty Tuesdays,” where missionaries give out free coffee outside the campus library, free Tuesday dinners at the Newman Center on Downer Avenue (which usually draws 50-80 people; all students are welcome, Catholic or not) and one-on-one meetings between missionaries and students.

“People don’t just show up to the campus ministry center anymore,” said Burds. “Some students might be here and there, but we have to have boots on the ground actually on-campus, interacting with students and inviting them into a life of discipleship.”

Anne Mosher, 23, is in her second year as a campus missionary. Like her fellow missionaries, she attends Mass and adoration daily and makes a Holy Hour first thing in the morning. A lot of her work, she said, is in just making herself accessible to students on campus.

“It’s intimidating to go at it alone,” she said of college students. “(As ministers) we think our door is open, we think we’re being welcoming, but it’s the invite that’s everything. The life of a missionary is a lot of just being on campus, being seen. There was one time I was just reading the Bible in the Union and a girl stopped and talked to me and she’s like, ‘Oh, my mom reads that.’ It’s like, yeah, cool — let’s talk about it!”

The missionaries typically schedule between four and six one-on-one mentoring meetings with students per week. These can be casual Scripture study, coffee dates or simply going for a run and talking.

“I just met a girl and we’re going to get coffee; she just needs someone to talk to,” said Mosher. “She doesn’t really know if she wants to be Catholic anymore. I think that’s a huge aspect of being a missionary — just talking to these students who are feeling alone and confused and not really sure what they believe and what they even hold important in their lives.”

“As a campus minister, I don’t think my job would be half as effective without these missionaries,” said Mueller.

Though she is only 26, she said it isn’t as easy for the students to relate to her life as it is for them to relate to someone like Mosher — a recent graduate still plotting post-college life.

“They have a capacity to engage students and meet with students where they’re at in a way that Pete or I cannot,” Mueller said. “They’re out on campus every single day, in the Union, quad, the coffee shops. They’re steeped in the culture of the campus.”

How to Keep Your Kids and Grandkids Catholic in College

“We’re supposed to pray and fast for these students every single day, and especially parents and grandparents have such a power with the Lord over interceding for their own children and grandchildren,” said Mueller.

“Actually bring them to the campus ministry when you do a tour of the school, so at the very least they know where it’s at, they’ve seen it, they’ve met people there,” said Burds.

Or give the campus ministry a heads-up that your student is on campus.

“I have a bunch of students’ emails and phone numbers just because their parents have reached out,” said Mueller. “I can reach out to the students, grab coffee with them — it’s much less intense than Grandma sitting down and talking to them about their faith.”

“Don’t give up on them,” advises Mosher. “Keep inviting them to Mass, even if you know they might not be going on campus — when they’re home, keep going with them. That means something.”