ChantWorks presents Fear Not. Host Linda Hoffman speaks with Tanner Kalina, FOCUS missionary.
Transcript: FEAR NOT interview. Linda Hoffman with Tanner Kalina, of FOCUS recorded October 21, 2021
Linda Hoffman: In just the last decade, the portion of the population who identify as Christian has fallen by 10 percent. The portion who identify as Catholic, in particular, has fallen 3 percent. Only 30 percent of those who were raised Catholic still practice according to one study, and most leave their faith before age 23.
Conversely, atheists and agnostics are on the rise, gaining 9 percent of the population over the last decade.
At the same time, suicides, mental illness, and addiction have plagued the country, but most especially young adults. No, correlation does not prove causation, but numbers tell a story. This one is not especially encouraging.
Many see college campuses as ground zero in extinguishing students’ faith and eradicating their belief in a higher power. The impact on our nation and on the lives of the young people who have bought into this nihilistic philosophy has been clear.
One organization has set out to tackle this challenge head on. FOCUS is a Catholic outreach program, especially to college and university students.
Today we have someone who’s thought a lot about this. Tanner Kalina is a second-year missionary with FOCUS. Tanner, it’s good to have you on the show.
Tanner Kalina: Thank you for having me, Linda.
Linda Hoffman: Tanner, you have a really interesting story. Give us an overview and how you became involved with FOCUS.
Tanner Kalina: Sure. So, I went to school at the University of Texas in Austin and while I was there I was really involved in the comedy scene in Austin. I was doing standup. I was involved in improv. I had a little sketch comedy group and SNL (Saturday Night Live) was the goal. Like that was—growing up—my family—we loved Jim Carey. We loved comedy. We loved SNL. Since I was five, I found a little book the other day from when I was five years old, and I said I want to be a comedian.
So, growing up that was just my passion. I wanted to be a comedian and I was doing it in Austin. But at the same time, I grew up with a faith, kind of a half-baked faith that was there. And I took it seriously, but in the way I knew how. I didn’t quite—it was mainly intellectual and it hadn’t sunken down in my heart, yet. But while I was in Austin, I got involved in FOCUS at our Catholic center, and in it I found authentic community for the first time. I found peers chasing faith and I saw what actual faith looked like. And my faith that had lived in my head for so long started to sink down my heart and I got to taste what a relationship with Jesus is like.
And so, I was going to do FOCUS right after college, which is what a lot what a lot of FOCUS missionaries do, but, because I was involved in the comic scene, I booked a studio comedy that was a pretty highly anticipated film the following year. And so that opened up a lot of doors for me in L.A. And my lofty goals of SNL all of a sudden became a pretty plausible reality. And so that shot me out to L.A. and the last five years, I guess six years ago, I moved out there. I was doing acting full time. Got close to SNL, but it never quite panned out. But did do a handful of independent feature films, and then, once again, just this faith that had been a part of my life resurfaced. And I lived in a house with five guys who loved Jesus, were on fire for him, and they encouraged me to pour into the Word, pour into prayer, and yeah, that changed my life.
And I wanted to go back out and show people this thing that changed my life and hopefully change their life for the better as well.
Linda Hoffman: Evangelism is a large part of FOCUS on campus, and there’s a program for parishes, too. Who do you attract, mostly? Cradle Catholics or others?
Tanner Kalina: That’s a great question. So, FOCUS was made in response to JPII’s call for new evangelization, which is finding those Catholics who had fallen away and really evangelizing them, bringing them back home, and get them on fire to go out and do likewise. So, mainly I would say cradle Catholics, however, we live in a time where, kind of, even cradle Catholics are starting to get more and more small. We live in, like, a post-Christian world. We live in, almost, another apostolic age where even having a Catholic background, or a Christian background, is becoming more scarce. So, you’re kind of starting from ground zero.
So, I’m finding more students like that, but who don’t have a Catholic background, but they have that ache in their heart, and that hunger for more, that they just don’t know how to fill.
Linda Hoffman: There’s a lot of news coverage around campuses stifling free speech. How do you overcome the anti-religion culture? And are kids generally receptive to the Catholic faith?
Tanner Kalina: I actually, I find that the—what’s beautiful about our time, as crazy as the world that we live in—is there is an openness, and so, if you approach someone with love and respect and joy, they will see that, and will be open to what you have to say. Often times, when we say our Catholic faith, they might be, like, oh, whoa, because they’re coming in with a whole bunch of biases and prejudices against the church. But, once you start to chisel away, and asked the questions, and peel back why they have those prejudices, why they actually believe what they believe, and you just preach the truth, they start to fold, fold away. And people are hungry for more.
They know that there’s something more out there, than the things that are typically offered on a college campus: partying and hookup culture, all the slew of different craziness. That stuff doesn’t satisfy. So, I do think that truth is truth. And when you preach it does, like, ring a chord in someone, because that’s just by design. Like Jesus has written on our hearts, the truth is written on our hearts. We’re hungry until that settles in our heart. And so, if you just stay true, it does resonate a deep chord within someone.
Linda Hoffman: I almost hate to ask, but it’s the elephant in the room. How Covid impacted your missionary work?
Tanner Kalina: Yeah. Last year was very rough in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder enacted a law that was just, like, wild. They had a law at one point for a couple months where if you are between the ages of 18 to 22, and you are in a group of more than two people, you could go to jail. Like, it was super intense. They really, really tried to lock away people, and so that made outreach to students super difficult. And a lot of it was just building up the community that was already here in Boulder.
But, now that restrictions of got a little more loose this year, we’re able to go out more, and bring in more people. And I think a year of isolation has really made students a lot more hungry, and so, we have a lot more in our community this year than last year.
Linda Hoffman: Introspection will change everything. Some people claim that being honest and upfront about one’s Catholic faith is the new punk—that is cultural rebellion. What’s the real story?
Tanner Kalina: I said that in Bible study last night. Like, guys, being Catholic super punk. And, what’s, like the video from Bishop Baron the other day, and he was talking about Saint Junipero Serras statues being tackled, and how it’s reminiscent of a time when Catholics are persecuted in the 1800s. And so, like right now our society is moving one way, and Catholics are moving another way. And I think that shift actually makes it easier to be all in on one side.
You know, Revelations 3:16, Jesus say, because you are neither hot nor cold, and you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth. I think, in the past, it’s been easy, kind of like one foot in Catholicism, and one foot out in the world. Lord knows, I did that for a long time. But, I think that with how extreme things are nowadays, it’s much easier to be Catholic, and just be like, I’m going to be, like, Catholic. I’m going to be punk.
Linda Hoffman: So, where does that leave the kids on campus? Are Catholic college kids a secret society, say like Friends of Abe, or out in the open?
Tanner Kalina: Yeah. I would say kind of like a secret group. We’re a small group, but we’re an on-fire group. And, the people like me and my team of missionaries, and myself, our job is really to get that on-fire group to, then, go out.
Our founder of FOCUS, Curtis Martin, had an awesome metaphor of Christians being like rods next to a fire. When you stick a metal rod in a fire, and you leave it there, it starts to take on the property of the fire. You know, it glows white, it gets hot. And if you stick it on piece of paper, it can make that paper, you know, ignite into a flame. Amnd, likewise, Christians, when we spend time with Jesus, we can take on the properties of Jesus, and, then, when we go out we can ignite people with the flame of Jesus.
So, my job as a missionary, my team’s job as missionaries, is to get our students who are on fire, to go out and get more people on fire.
Linda Hoffman: FOCUS talks about beauty saving the world. That makes sense. Catholics at one point cornered the market on truth, beauty and goodness. How important is the beauty of the Mass to FOCUS members and seekers?
Tanner Kalina: Wow. It’s essential. I think in today’s time, we’ve almost lost logic. Like, logic isn’t a language we can speak with one another anymore. Certain truths that we’ve abided by for forever are no longer considered truths. And, so, the one language that can break through universally, I think, is beauty and art and goodness. And, so, I think beauty is essential to reaching people, and essential to the spreading of faith.
Linda Hoffman: It certainly transcends. Any advice for Catholic high school seniors and their families who are considering your school, the University of Colorado?
Tanner Kalina: Yeah. I would say if you are a high school senior and you’re looking—narrow your choices down for where to go to school next year, I would say, look and see if there is a FOCUS presence on that campus because it truly is an awesome organization that is meant to cater, and find people like you, and bring you into community, and just deepen your faith. And, especially as you transition and leave your family, and go to, for the first time, a place where you’ll be independent, and make decisions on your own. You need to be surrounded by like-minded people, because we can’t go on, or we can go about our faith by ourselves.
Linda Hoffman: Words of wisdom, Tanner. That was a blast. Thank you for joining us and giving us hope for the country’s future. All is not lost.
Tanner Kalina: All is not lost, Linda. Thank you for having me.
Linda Hoffman: The battle for our nation’s soul may very well begin on our college campuses. Historically, Catholics have never fled from a righteous battle. At one point in history, Catholics were the bastion of reason, innovation and invention. We were the hospitals, orphanages, missionaries… a mighty and fearless force in every corner of the world.
FOCUS truly breathes life into the Catholic mission and carries it into the future. If you’d like to learn more about FOCUS, check the link below.
Thanks for joining us. I hope you enjoyed our show. I’m Linda Hoffman. See you on our next exciting episode of Fear Not.
(music and credits)