When students go on InterVarsity Urban Plunges over spring break, they seem to end up in a couple of places emotionally. As the Milwaukee Urban Project director, I have noticed during our debrief times that students often highlight the positives of the week – the new relationships, the amazing ministries, and the impact of the Bible studies. I am glad these students have seen that God is active and at work to renew our city. But there is a second group that leaves the trip, and too often they don’t share about their experiences. These are the students who enter the city and have their hearts broken by what they see. I wish these lamenting students would speak up more because they have experienced something that is transformative.
These Urban Plunges are intended to expose students to the reality of brokenness and injustice in the world. Students hear the stories and enter the lives of people they otherwise would not meet. College students work with the fourth graders who are two years behind their peers, the men who lost their jobs when the factories left, the women who are working two or three jobs to provide for their families. In the process they see how broken systems and the legacies of our shared past shape the students and the people they serve. It breaks the students’ hearts, but more importantly as they hear the stories and read their Bibles, they see how injustice breaks God’s heart.
In many ways the students who leave broken receive a very weighty gift – they understand God’s character at a deeper level and what they witnessed will probably motivate them long after the mountaintop experience has passed. However, when only the happy stories are celebrated, the heartbroken students are marginalized. This can breed bitterness and anger as those students wrestle with the weight of the brokenness that has worked its way into their souls and can cause them to feel more alone and isolated. They can become alienated towards the Church, and in some cases, leave their faith behind altogether.
I think we need to learn how to give those students the space they need to share the heartbreak of their experiences. We need to teach them spiritual disciplines like lament, where they join the psalmists and prophets in crying out to God about what they have seen. We also need to teach them to recognize that in lament the only hope they have is in God, both now and in the future. Problems like educational inequity or lack of access to quality housing are too big to fix on our own. We need God to show up, and these students are in the best position to recognize how deep that need is.
These lamenting students have been disturbed by the way that the world is, and so they are in the best place to re-imagine how God wants the world to be. We older Christians need to give them the space to share and process through that pain, but also push them to recognize God’s goodness and the hope we have in him in the midst of the mess. These students will be the ones that change the world because they always carry within them the sense of how badly it needs to be changed.
Chris Nielson serves as the Milwaukee Urban Program director for InterVarsity. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2008 and spent two years teaching in Philadelphia before coming on staff.