May 31, 2023

By Marcus Ashlock

Missionary discipleship starts with a desire to have a deeper relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. We have an internal need to find our place in this world; however, only through Christ and the outpouring of love and charity to those around us can our place truly be found.

Worldly pursuits cause a void in our lives, but nothing will ever fill the void completely. Only through the steadfast love of Christ, and our daily relationship with him, can there ever be enough light to illuminate all the darkness we experience in the world.

It feels easier said than done, especially when the evil one fights back to disrupt our walk with Christ. How can you put on the armor of God when the world brings you to your knees?

Quite simply, by growing closer to our Lord and helping others do the same. The ChristLife series can help guide us on that journey.

Questioning God when tragedy strikes

A decade ago, tragedy struck the Mitzel family of Aberdeen, causing questions of faith to arise in both children and mom and dad alike. They were a Catholic family who worshiped and prayed together, seeking God in their daily lives, and who were rocked to the core of their beliefs as they sought to repair the damage the tragic event had caused.

“I had a lot of anger in me for many years, and I started to question why God would allow something like that to happen,” Steve Mitzel said. “My son was a seminarian at the time and he ended up leaving the seminary because of it. Both of my older sons were so faithful and now they are questioning if there is a God.”

Steve explained how prior to this, he and his wife Brenda were a part of the Engaged Encounter, on the parish council for 15 years, and Steve was a member of the Knights of Columbus. They both felt as if they were doing the right things as faithful Christian parents. However, after his family’s situation, he slipped away from actively participating in his faith.

“There’s the devil and evil on earth, but we prayed for God to keep our children safe. Why did he not keep them safe?” Steve said. “There was a lot of questioning and I kept going to church, but it became mechanical, very robotic; I was doing it more for the kids. This leads to more questioning and, after seeing and hearing agnostic and atheistic information, you can start to cloud your mind.”

We’ll come back to the Mitzel’s story in a moment.

Seeking an encounter with Christ

More than three years ago, Deacon Pat Derrington, who serves at Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls, was looking for something new to enrich the yearly RCIA program. He wanted to provide the candidates an opportunity to have a true conversion experience.

“Sometimes you can talk with or spend time with someone and you know they have had a conversion experience,” Deacon Pat said. “This put me on a path to find what we can do, or how could we modify the RCIA process to give people the opportunity to have an encounter with Christ.”

A Facebook message from members of a former parish said St. Mary Parish in Sioux Falls was offering a seven-week series called Discovering Christ. He reached out to the program director and became interested.

“I thought, this was something! What really piqued my interest was it was not just a seven-week course, the ChristLife series was three courses in one, and a way to grow a community of missionary disciples,” Deacon Pat said.

The three-part ChristLife series guides participants in Discovering Christ, Following Christ, and then Sharing Christ. Each part is seven weeks long, providing participants a way to encounter Jesus and renew their daily walk with him.

“The Discovering Christ part gives people an opportunity to renew their excitement, enthusiasm and sense of joy they once felt.” Deacon Pat said. “In the Following Christ part, you thoroughly examine your prayer life. Are you spending time in scripture? It helps flesh out your life and brings Jesus more into the everyday ebb and flow of one’s daily life. Finally, Sharing Christ is where we learn to go out and tell others.”

A group in attendance at Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls during the Discovering Christ series.

Deacon Pat knew this series would help his RCIA candidates have that encounter they needed to experience Christ and learn to grow in him, to build a relationship with Jesus and learn how to evangelize, bringing others to Christ.

Once the series took root, it expanded past the initial use in the RCIA program and became an annual series for anyone—couples or singles, members of any parish, as well as for Christians and even atheists. The first year, 100 people attended the first part, Discovering Christ. More than 90 people have made it through the third and final part. Deacon Pat says everyone is welcome to begin a relationship with Jesus.

A spiritual awakening

Deacon Pat describes the series outcomes in his parishioners’ lives as an awakening moment. Some participants who have completed the series have had a transformational experience. Julie Deis, of Holy Spirit Parish and a participant in the ChristLife series, describes her experience in the same terms.

“It hit me hard, am I living the Bible? Am I truly living God’s words? Am I helping? Am I being caring and empathetic? Am I being of service? It really woke me up,” Julie said. “The ChristLife series was kind of an answer. What was amazing is it shared things we already know, but we don’t pay attention to. It was like a veil lifted and all of a sudden you see God in everyone around you; realizing you’ve always had the capability of sharing God with them.”

Julie said sometimes you can see that some people are unsure of the series when it begins and are considering why they are attending. Julie and her husband, along with other veterans of the series, begin to pray for the participants so they may open their hearts and minds to God’s presence and learn to grow in Christ’s love. According to Julie, there comes a point where they turn a corner and start to experience a renewed relationship with Jesus.

Returning to faith

“My soul was in the desert and I was a robot going through the motions because of my family and kids, I was going to church because of them,” Steve Mitzel said. “I only went to the ChristLife series because my wife wanted me to. Little by little, the iceberg started chipping away and then it began to melt. All of a sudden, I was thinking ‘I needed to get back my relationship with Christ.’ I went to the series with no expectations and it just happened.”

Steve said Brenda’s faith never faltered during their family’s ordeal and subsequent relocation to the Sioux Falls area. Their children are slowly coming back to their faith at their own individual rates. His goal was to be a role model for his children, especially his sons who are questioning the very existence of God.

“Now they say, ‘Wow! Dad is hanging in there. Mom has always been the rock; she hasn’t waived at all; but Dad’s kind of hanging in there,’” Steve said. “I’m hoping through my example, in time they, too, will come back to faith.”

If you are feeling the pull of the Holy Spirit calling you to a closer relationship with Jesus Christ, the ChristLife series can put you on that path. Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls will be offering the full ChristLife series starting in January 2023. If you want to have a personal encounter with Christ or want to experience the series in hopes of bringing it to your own parish, please contact Deacon Pat Derrington at Holy Spirit Parish to enroll in the 2023 series.

“It is well worth the time and investment, if only for yourself, and you don’t have to move on to the second or third parts,” Julie said. “Discovering Christ will immerse you into an understanding of who the Holy Spirit is, what his role in our life plays and how he brings us closer to Christ. Not everybody wants to have a personal relationship with Jesus, and that’s okay; but to me, a personal relationship is what makes my faith real.”