By Peter Bugden
“NEW evangelisation” is a phrase often on the lips of popes and other Church leaders of recent times, but Brisbane Catholic Donna McDade has a slight twist for the work she does among young people.
It’s called “super stealth evangelisation”.
It’s what happens when she lives her Catholic faith in running retreats and workshops for school students and staff – non-Christian as well as Christian.
Her passion for that type of work and her love of music has led Donna to take a leap of faith and establish her own business in that field.
The business, Experience Wellbeing, utilises the gifts and talents she’s developed as a qualified school teacher, professional musician, personal trainer, former campus minister and theology student.
Many of those talents blossomed during her 10 years as campus minister at Siena Catholic College on the Sunshine Coast.
Donna’s parish priest at St William’s, Grovely, in Brisbane, Fr Frank Lourigan knew she was special before she left to take up that role.
In a testimonial on the Experience Wellbeing website Fr Lourigan says: “Donna McDade is a pearl of great price. … She is good news. She is a change agent.”
He had discovered that largely through Donna’s contribution in youth ministry.
But the parish almost missed out on that.
Donna had been drawn to youth ministry while she was studying to be a primary school teacher at Queensland University of Technology, and when she threw herself into that she came in contact with other denominations and organisations who were strong in youth ministry.
That led her to become involved with the Church of Christ.
“I was at Church of Christ down at Arana Hills, down the road. I was going to both – Catholic Mass with my family and then to Church of Christ,” Donna, whose father Peter is a deacon and mother Trisha is heavily involved in the parish, said.
“Because I’d gotten into youth ministry at uni I’d met a lot of different communities of Christian groups doing the same thing.
“Obviously there was a lot of young people there, so I (had) a great, great training in youth ministry with the Scripture Union, Church of Christ, Student Life at uni, also Children’s and Youth Ministry with Carole Danby – she trained me at that time too – with RE and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
“It was a big formation time. I just really loved it.
“So then I thought I’d gotten all this training – so many weekends, so many experiences for probably two or three years.
“I reflected on it and I thought, ‘If I was God where would I want me? At Church of Christ where there’s a big infrastructure for youth and training and a pathway and it’s all vibrant, or would God want me back up the road at St William’s where there’s nothing as far as youth ministry infrastructure goes …? But where’s the need greater?’
“I remember discerning over that and decided to go up and start a youth group at St William’s.”
Fr Lourigan welcomed the idea, and the ministry flourished with strong support from him, other priests, parents and parishioners.
That youth ministry experience inspired Donna to apply for the campus minister role at Siena as soon as she graduated from QUT as a teacher.
“I applied for teaching jobs as well but this is where I felt called,” she said.
It was a steep learning curve.
“I started when I was 22 and I was still growing up, so I had a lot of pressure in my head about being perfect but that all came crashing down.
“I made it through the first 12 months and then we had a child commit suicide two months later.
“I was devastated. Then a few months after, Daniel Morcombe (then a student at the college) was taken, then a few months after that the principal died. Then a few months after that, two … It just kept going on, and it’s still going on.”
Donna said the first tragedy “smashed” her.
“If you think about your perspective as a sheet of glass – the first tragedy smashed my sheet of glass like nothing else and I had to rebuild,” she said, recalling that her grandfather had died that year and she’d moved away from home for the first time.
“I was really in the deep end and that happened and I was emotionally and mentally stuffed.
“So I went part-time and I really reflected and I turned back to prayer and turned back to Scripture and mentors – Penny Carroll was my mentor at that time – and pieced the pieces together into a mosaic.”
Donna said she “had some pretty serious conversations with God” after the death of the first student.
“I said: ‘You’d better be looking after her right now. If you’re not, I’m outta here. I’m ditching this job’.
“And I just thought, ‘Donna, if you care …’ And, what’s that scripture? ‘If you give your son a nice thing, what do you think I’m going to do?’ says God. ‘You’re my creature.’ So I thought, ‘Huh, Okay, so you must be looking after her. Okay, I’ll bring that message to everybody’.”
And the message was: “It’s okay, … even if we lose a cherished person, we aren’t without hope. Christ has got her; she’s fine. And Christ has got us too.
“So we were devastated and we were sad every time we lost someone but we weren’t without hope.
“We have very supportive community and we just focus on … what’s important about life – family, friendships, building your skills, having a purpose, living with purpose.“And your purpose is … to love and be loved. That’s it.
“And you come from God, not a factory. You’re not a thing; you’re a person.
“So in that way we proactively address issues that are caused from materialism, individualism, consumerism, coming with that very strong message of ‘Your identity is not grounded in how much money you have, or how popular you are, or what you look like, or who your family is.
“‘Your dignity is grounded in the fact that you come from God and you are here with your particular purpose and that is to love and be loved in your particular way.
“‘No one else can do that job. Develop your skills, make the world a better place but remember that it’s really love.
“‘It’s relationships and it’s for the good of others.
“So whatever you’re developing it’s for the good of others, and looking after the whole, not just the individual.
“‘The whole community progresses together, not just one person at the disadvantage of others’.”
Donna said “that’s basically what I tell the kids in my workshops”.
“All those lessons, Scripture is true,” she said. “Those principles; it’s right. It’s all true.
“If you take those Catholic social justice principles, they’re true. And if you take those values from Jesus in the Gospels, they’re true.
“Yes, treat people with dignity. Yes, look after the whole, not just the individual.
“Yes, have hope because there is way more to this life than the materialism around us. Yes, there’s a spiritual dimension. Yes, there is.”
And Donna knows from experience that that approach works with non-Christian students and staff as well as Christian.
“Because I’m trained as a teacher, I’ve got the Catholic faith and I love the Catholic education you can bring those holistic values – educating the whole person – you can bring those values and those principles and that style of education to any school and they love it,” she said.
“The kids respond because you’re giving them dignity.
“That’s all you really want; you just want to affirm their dignity, which is Catholic social justice principles.
“And when you really know social justice principles and you do that for every kid they love it, because they see that it’s fair and it’s true.
“So it’s ‘super stealth evangelisation … That’s what it is.’,” she says with her “super hero” voice.
Donna, who works as a relief teacher and has a regular gig performing solo at an inner-city venue, is busy building her business so that she can be doing what she loves most – leading retreats and workshops, performing and being a personal trainer – with relief teaching as supplementary option.
She’s also completing a post-graduate degree in theology.
“I’ll just keep trusting God. God’s my boss,” she said.