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30 Under 30

30 Under 30 Jeffrey Bruno

Jeffrey Bruno

John Burger - published on 01/01/14

FOCUS is featuring the new generation of movers and shakers in the Church. Who made the cut this year?

Thinking of making a New Year’s Resolution? Take a look at the lives of 30 young Catholic “movers and shakers,” and you might be inspired to make one that will last beyond the first couple of weeks of January.

The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) has announced the results of its 30 Under 30 project to spotlight the lives and work of young Catholics who are making a difference.

FOCUS, which has campus ministry programs on 83 American college campuses, asked readers of its blog for nominations of young Catholic activists, sports figures, artists, or writers. Most of the honorees have been announced; the rest are to be listed by Jan. 6.  

The contest was inspired by an address Pope Francis gave in May, in which he exhorted listeners, “Let us not be afraid of life commitments, commitments that take up and concern our entire life!” FOCUS wanted to spotlight 30 people under the age of 30 “who are making a difference in our Church, men and women who aren’t afraid of making commitments and who are changing the world,” FOCUS’s Kevin Cotter said in announcing the project.

Those honored have shown common qualities, such as idealism and energy, a lack of inhibition in executing ideas that may seem impossible, and the willingness to forgo greater opportunities for service to others or a cause.

“There are so many great things going on in our young Church, and this list gives us a chance to honor a few of these people,” said Curtis Martin, founder and president of FOCUS.

Honorees include some well-known Catholics, such as Lila Rose of Live Action, Thomas Peters of the National Organization for Marriage, Chicago White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers, and blogger Brandon Vogt.

But the list, developed from almost 200 nominations, also features many who are quietly working away at what they love.

Aleteia visited with a few of them:

Back to the Land

Kevin Ford wants not only to be a family farmer but to engender a movement where Catholic families can live close to the land, raising their own crops while rearing children in a Catholic culture.

In 2010, Ford quit his teaching job at a Catholic high school to become a full-time organic vegetable farmer. Along with his wife, Mary, he bought an acre and a half in St. Leo, Kan., about 70 miles west of Wichita.

Ford, 29, sees too many challenges in today’s world to leave raising a family to chance. He wants to revive the Catholic Land Movement that had tried to re-establish an agrarian social economy to counter the industrial regime in early 20th-century Great Britain.

“Throughout the world today, families are in disarray,” he said. “There is little order to be found in modern family life. The New Catholic Land Movement seeks to rebuild order in the life of the family by placing it in an environment where it can truly have integrity.”

He said the Church has repeatedly taught that the rural life is the ideal for the family. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, said in 2006 that the “rural family must regain its place at the heart of the social order.”

But if the Fords are going to be farmers, they want to be in direct contact with the earth, with a minimum of machinery. Ford sees an over-reliance on technology as detrimental to family life.

“Too often a machine has taken the place of meaningful human and family interaction,” he wrote in an article explaining his decision to abandon his former lifestyle. “Dishwashers haven’t decreased the dish loads, but rather increased the sinks full of dishes and decreased important interaction between people, especially children, as they learn to work together. Our family seeks to live simply. We find that with less technology, we suddenly have time for activities we previously couldn’t squeeze in. Without the time in front of the television, we find time to read together, sing and dance with the piano, or simply sit out back in the evenings and watch the chickens scratch about.”

The Fords have two daughters, Rose and Ana, and a baby boy on the way.

They also have a small following of young families who want to establish homesteads and work the land. A couple from Austin, Texas, for example, bought property near the Fords, and the two families comprise Fiat Farms, supplying organic produce to an area cooperative.

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Ford’s ultimate goal is to establish a Catholic Rural Life Institute and village, where families would learn how to live off the land.

“I believe that the faith will only begin to revive once we begin to revive real family life,” he said, “and I believe the best place for that is on the land.”

Truth and Beauty

The motivator in Cory Heimann’s life is finding ways to package the true, the good and the beautiful in the 21st Century. Heimann studied theology and multi-media communications at Franciscan University of Steubenville and worked with various television networks and media outlets. He then founded Likeable Art, a design and video production studio that “strives to point to someone greater through beautiful media.” Likeable Art creates videos, logos and branding for organizations such as Dynamic Catholic, the U.S. Bishops Conference, Steubenville Conferences, Lifeteen and Brandon Vogt’s web-based dialogue with atheists,

“I have been moved by art countless times, and if I can move a couple of people to see the beauty of the truth, I'm a happy man,” said Heimann, 26. “Pope Benedict said, ‘Artists are the custodians of beauty.’ I love that imagery. We're blue collar workers with a task to show the brilliance of creation.”

Working in new media, Heimann sees the internet as “a mission territory.” He quotes Blessed Pope John Paul II: "These 'powerful instruments' require specific skills and disciplines on the part of those who use them, and that to communicate intelligibly in these ‘new languages’ there is a need for both special aptitudes and appropriate training.”

“'Intelligible communication' is not how I would describe the average comment on YouTube,” Heimann commented. “Anonymity online has too often led us to digging in the trash for the language we use and the images we look at. Every fifth search is for pornography. Never in history has such a weapon against our families been in our living rooms. But if there's anything we can learn from Theology of the Body is that this just shows our hunger for the good and the beautiful. If you're spending some of your time in this digital environment, you're called to be evangelizing…. We need great content. Blogs, videos, design, not necessarily just about the Church, but just honest content from the heart for the heart. This is what will really change the face of the Internet.” 

On the Frontlines for Life

If FOCUS’s 30 young Catholics are society’s future “movers and shakers,” Rachana Chhin has a head start. At 24, he has already worked for several international organizations and played a key role in the passage of a state pro-life law.

Perhaps more than many activists, Chhin’s family background gives his pro-life activism more meaning. His parents were refugees from the notorious Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

But Chhin was born in Houston, where he and his siblings were reared as good Buddhists.

“Towards middle school and high school, however, I was being drawn more and more to some semblance of [Christian] faith,” he said. “Growing up in the United States, there is always some sense of Christ permeating the air, even if it is more so of a post-Christian culture. It was the little things that planted the first seeds: celebrating the holidays, growing up in the south with so many churches, reading an illustrated children’s Bible my aunt bought me, my mother teaching me how to pray, etc. Even as a little boy, I would remember sitting up at night talking to God. He was ‘real’ to me; He was my friend, someone who I could always go to.”

He said he couldn’t shake from his mind the Gospel of God’s love, man’s fall, and Christ’s redemption. He searched the Internet, joined message boards and spoke with others who were in process of conversion.

“Finally, in August 2005 and after watching the Passion of the Christ, I made the decision to commit my life to Jesus and call Him my Lord and Savior.”

Chhin enrolled at Baylor University, which is Baptist, but he encountered many different expressions of Christianity there. He became involved in the campus pro-life groups Bears for Life, and when he served as the group’s president, they won Student Group of the Year during the 2010 March for Life.

“I don’t know when pro-life work became a passion of mine, but it all was very organic really,” he said. “Even as a Buddhist, I knew there was something sacred and precious about protecting and cherishing human life, especially innocent, unborn human life,” he said.

It was at Baylor, too, that his exposure to Catholicism increased. He was resident assistant in his dorm, and one of his residents invited him to Mass.

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“This experience somehow resonated with my soul,” he recalled. “The Eucharist, in particular, drew my heart. Was Christ truly [present,] body, blood, soul, and divinity? The reverence of the liturgy and the love and kindness of my first priest…also gently helped me in those early days again.”

He was received into the Church on Holy Saturday in 2010.

After graduation, Chhin began studies at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, desiring to “integrate my passion for pro-life work and public policy.” He got involved in the pro-life group, Lex Vitae and became a Blackstone Legal Fellow with Alliance Defending Freedom. He researched and wrote a White Paper for Life International, a pro-life NGO, on the abortion laws and regulations of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. “They were trying to look at the regulatory and legal landscape that their group was operating in to bring in pro-life resources/pregnancy centers,” he explained.

He also became an Edmund Burke Fellow with the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. During the summer of 2013 he worked for Texas Alliance for Life during the House Bill 2 debate at the Texas Legislature, helping with legal research, lobbying, and preparing materials to educate lawmakers and activists. The bill passed, though it is being challenged. It regulates abortion-inducing drugs to be used in accord with FDA guidelines, requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges to local hospitals (in cases of complications), bans late-term abortion after 20 weeks gestation, and raises the standard of care in abortion facilities to that of other surgical centers in Texas. 

As if all that was not enough, Chhin interned for the Legal Affairs Committee of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York.

“Personally, I’d be more than happy with a quiet, simple, and ordinary life shared with those whom I most love,” Chhin said. “Who doesn’t want that? But from what I can see, it seems that all of the work I’ve been doing thus far has centered around pro-life activism, public policy, the Church, etc.”

It looks like it might be that way for a while.

Water, Water Everywhere—Not

When George McGraw got back a field report on the water situation in Afghanistan in 2010, he was surprised at how simple it would have been to fix problems people were having in getting fresh, clean water. McGraw was doing a consultancy with a major international organization that was funding well-digging for areas in need of clean water. Many of those wells were failing “for reasons that were completely avoidable,” he said. “There might have been a hole in the ground and no pump had ever been delivered or installed. In some cases you’d have, just two kilometers away, two boxes with pumps in them with no hole in the ground at all. Or the pump had failed because no one taught them how to care for them properly or the hole hadn’t been dug deep enough to take care of seasonal changes in the water table.”

McGraw, who had been raised in a “good Irish Catholic family” by parents who were daily communicants, saw the injustice in it all. Access to fresh water is a human right, he felt.

Thus was born DigDeep, a Los Angeles-based organization that seeks to provide clean water in various parts of the world.

“The central problem in all of these cases was that the community itself wasn’t being invited in, wasn’t being cared for,” he said. “These projects were being planned out of country, off-site and a company was being hired to come in and ‘take care of this problem’ by just drilling a hole and leaving.”

DigDeep has projects in New Mexico, South Sudan, Kashmir and Cameroon. “Our projects are really small, very personal,” McGraw said. “How do we break down the barrier between donor and recipient? How do we teach people who would usually be sidelined as ‘donors’ that they too have a human right to water, and that gives them certain responsibilities? How do we connect them with the people we serve and treat them as equals?”

Though the organization is secular, the work McGraw is doing “has a basis in Catholic social teaching,” he said. “The whole concept of international human rights as legal obligation comes from natural law, originally, based in the concept that human beings are created free and equal. The Church would call that their inherent dignity, their likeness and image which comes from God.”

McGraw studied in a high school preparatory seminary under then-Bishop Raymond Burke in La Crosse, Wis., and then went to Loyola University in Chicago. He earned a master’s degree in international law from the United Nations Mandated University for Peace (UPEACE) in San José, Costa Rica.

McGraw and his apostolate are helping to slake people’s thirst and boost healthy lifestyles. In their own ways, all the 30 Under 30 honorees are doing the same thing.

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