At Franciscan University, the story of 32 students’ journey to coastal Florida, a spring break magnet for social activity and therefore a ripe location for rich evangelization, goes by the name SonLife Mission.
Led by seniors Paul Herlihey and Victoria Girolamo, this year’s mission installment brought the faith to Panama City, Florida, intent to return to campus with far more than tan skin and chapped lips. Full hearts and demonstrative love prove the complete extent of the agenda for SonLife Mission, together with team formation and selective sleep sandwiched between glory stories and impromptu fellowship.
After three 12-passenger vans made the drive from Steubenville to Panama City, team members participated in conversational bar, beach and street ministry, which collectively served to introduce beachgoers to a God who loves them. Girolamo said that in a place “where people maybe don’t know that they’re valued or desired,” Franciscan students found a safe place “where they can be themselves.”
Herlihey added that the team’s purpose in Florida has everything to do with one’s inherent sense of self-worth: “We’re trying to go down there to mirror people’s dignity to them. A lot of people don’t recognize that they have dignity and intrinsic value just as people.” He said that SonLife Mission regularly reminds Panama City guests and residents that “they’re worth more than they think they are.”
“We encourage a relationship with God the Father,” said Girolamo, speaking to the importance of team member formation before the onset of the mission itself. “In knowing the Lord, we can more perfectly reflect His image to those we encounter.” The brokenness SonLife Mission is set to experience “forces you to face your own wounds, to address those before you can help others to address theirs,” added Herlihey.
Crucial to the success of SonLife Mission is their evangelization partner relationship, a template for safety and mission continuity which pairs a male and female together, for the purpose of general protection, onsite intercession and emotional support.
The evangelization partner dynamic hinges upon determined pre-mission preparation, given the difficulty of spreading Christ across Panama City bars, beaches and streets. “When you go through something so heartbreaking,” said Girolamo, “you just want someone there to lean on a little more. You really lean on each other a lot.”
Thanks to solid leadership in Herlihey and Girolamo, together with Director of Evangelization and Mission Advisor Bob Siemens, the SonLife mission team understands the vitality of flexibility while in Panama City.
“(Siemens) likes to say that sometimes we don’t even plant a seed; sometimes, we’re the ones digging the hole,” said Herlihey.
Ultimately, Herlihey accurately summarized the goal of SonLife Mission into a statement as easy to claim as it remains difficult to enact: “To bring Christ into the conversation.” Girolamo said that the “heartbreaking” nature of the mission bridges the distance between Christ and culture.
“We’re going down there to face hard, broken evils with love,” she said.
The ideals brought to Floridian bars and beaches remain equally applicable on the streets of Steubenville, said Girolamo: “This isn’t just a mission for Panama City Beach, Florida. This is a mission for our campus, a mission for when you’re in the grocery store. It’s very necessary (in Florida) especially, but it’s needed everywhere.”
For 32 Franciscan University students, white sands between the toes isn’t enough to satisfy simple spring break agendas. Welcome to SonLife Mission, a dedicated initiative characterized by an open mind and open heart. “You don’t have to say the perfect words,” Girolamo concluded with a smile. “You just have to love. It’s really simple.”