Ben Johnston earned a lot of “frequent passenger miles” at the age of 20. Johnston, a Michigan native, is serving his second year as a missionary for National Evangelism Team (NET) Ministries, based in West St. Paul.
Since mid-September, Johnston’s 11-member retreat team has held 88 retreats at parishes and schools in eight states, including Michigan and Nebraska. His team’s 15-passenger van will be running through the southern states and east coast to Virginia through May, as they hold 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 Christ-sharing missionaries with youth in grades 6-12. Nine NET teams will organize around 1,200 retreats this year. Additionally, five discipleship teams are assigned to specific parishes or schools to build longer-term relationships and help grow youth ministry, Johnston said.
These young adults navigate long hours on the road away from their families in order to share the word of God with young people in several 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 in August, he hit the road in the fall with a retirement team.
“I wanted to serve others in a way that they would know it was Christ working in me, that they would be transformed, and they would know that God is worth loving,” Johnston said.
NET Ministries is uplifting, but not always easy, Johnston said. The journey can take 15 minutes to the next site, or up to six hours, six days a week in the van, lifted by team members building friendships, praying with scriptures, listening to spiritual podcasts or have time to “have fun with a few bops”. (music) and take amazing naps,” he said.
Johnston and other members of the NET team spend the night before a retreat with one or more host families in the parish or school they will be serving. It’s a great gift from “warm, welcoming and good people,” with team members usually joining the family for dinner and conversation, he said.
This is also where he can do the laundry, sleep and relax. If a family has young children, there’s often time to play, he says. If the father is a football fan, Johnston could watch a game with him. If there’s a pissed off teenager 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 family, he said, and show the love of Christ by example.
“We’re not here just to eat and sleep,” he said. “We try to invest in (the family) when we’re there.” It means “being a really good person for these people,” asking for help, being grateful, being a good guest, and being interested in their lives, Johnston said.
“It’s just giving,” he said, but not like “hey-you-know-Jesus.”
On retreat mornings, Johnston wakes up around 6 a.m., takes a shower, prays alone for half an hour, and packs his bags – as, he says, “we live in a suitcase”, with a 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 collapse. We need concrete support from the Lord, and this is how we can receive.
Johnston usually prays the Liturgy of the Hours, reads scripture, and then concentrates on “just a few prayers and mental reflections”.
The foster home “usually packs a big breakfast,” he said with a laugh. “Like, ‘Here’s all the food in my pantry.’ It’s awesome.”
Then he helps pack the caravan with retreat materials for the skits, Bibles for prayer time, soccer balls and decks of cards for the icebreakers, “putting it all in there” , Johnston said.
Arrived at the site of the retreat an hour before its start, the young people pray as a team. Everyone has a retirement role. The ‘Setup Person’, Team and Retreat Leaders tour the facility, the group unpacks the trailer, and they discuss the day’s schedule and get ready for the students.
The Johnston team holds retreats six days a week. Sometimes the seventh day is all about travel, but more often its focus is “spending time together as a team,” he said, “seeing some sights, hanging out, just kind of existing as a ‘normal human being for a little while’.
Missing family celebrations can be difficult, he said. And the young men on his team were high school athletes who lack regular exercise.
“We don’t have time on the road to do any important training sessions or races,” he said. Free time is minimal, which means skipping small pleasures like reading books and scrolling on cell phones.
But one day a month is what he called “a holy day without obligation” – a real day off. “We don’t have anything on the schedule,” he said. As a rule, Johnston sleeps, explores the city, goes shopping, calls his family.
The ultimate goal of a NET retreat is “to want (students) to meet Jesus,” said David Rinaldi, mission director of NET Ministries. With many retreatants enrolled in confirmation or religious education classes, Rinaldi said, many young people are learning about God but not getting to know him.
“We exist as a ministry because we want young people to meet Jesus, not just get to know him, not (just) play games and have fun on a retreat, but the purpose of the retreat is that come to know God’s love for themselves,” he said.
These experiences happen often, he said. Missionaries regularly submit comments from retreat participants – what NET staff call “stories of fame,” such as one that read: “I came to this retreat thinking it was going to be stupid, but now I know that God loves me.” Another retreatant wrote that he expected it to be boring, but instead it was fun.
The ultimate goal is not the pleasure one can have, said Rinaldi. It’s prayer time. “But to get there, we use a variety of small and large group activities,” he said, including games and, with younger retreatants, “silly sketches.”
In addition to missionaries traveling to the sites, full weekend retreats for young people preparing for confirmation are being offered this year at NET Ministries headquarters for parishes and schools across the Archdiocese. Typically, about 90 students from about five parishes stay at headquarters Saturday through Sunday, Rinaldi said.
NET RETREAT IN BRIEF
TIME: About 4-6 hours in a school or parish
CLASSES: Six to 12
ICEBREAKER: Frisbees, hacky bags, cards
SONGS: As a form of prayer
LARGE GROUP DISCUSSION: Led by a missionary on the chosen theme
TWO SMALL GROUPS: An introduction, a conversation-based
PRAYER TIMES: Prayer intentions, commitments to Christ
LEARN MORE: netusa.org
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