Dwellings puzzled together with mismatched pieces of wood and metal are built along sewage-filled streets; children caked with filth and many under-clothed play in the trash that surrounds them. In Cairo, Egypt, images such as these are common in the sprawling slums around the city; one such slum has three million people packed together, living in squalor.
On Google maps, the slums look distinct from the rest of the city, as if the streets and buildings in those impoverished areas were crushed together by a compactor. In developing countries, slums like those found in Cairo exist in almost every major city.
Unfortunately, in many urban slums very little Christian presence exists. It was the need for a Christian influence in these slums that motivated InterVarsity to bring groups of students during their summer break into those areas to live among and serve the poor.
The Global Urban Trek (GUT) stands distinctly apart from other short-term mission trips for several reasons. The first distinction is the Trek’s focus on going into urban communities and not rural ones.
In some developing countries, slums are a fairly recent human condition. As more people move away from the country into a city, the living conditions in urban areas become smothering, and the close-quarters are compounded by the intense poverty and lack of sanitation; these things make it a difficult place to minister because the situation seems hopeless and unredeemable.
It takes amazing courage, radical sacrifice, and a clear call from God to enter into such intense poverty. InterVarsity provides students a place to explore God’s call, by giving them the opportunity to live among the desperately poor.
The Global Urban Trek not only provides the opportunity to live among the poor, but unabashedly and directly asks participants on the trip to consider whether God is calling them to live in a slum. The student considers this call before, during, and after the mission, making this process the second distinction of the GUT.
Scott Bessenecker, director of Global Projects, who was instrumental in the inception of the Trek, believes that InterVarsity attracts students who are drawn towards activism. The kinds of students InterVarsity draws and the range of topics our staff address regarding Jesus, justice, and mission feed into the purpose and vision of the Global Urban Trek. This makes InterVarsity a womb for birthing individuals who desire to live incarnationally in the slums of the world.
The third distinction of the GUT is that at the end of the trip every student who participated is asked to make a commitment to serve the poor, to respond if they felt God’s calling. Every year about 30 students pledge to spend two years serving the urban poor. That’s forty percent of participants!
The two-year commitment is lived out in one of three ways: living in a slum among the poor, living outside a slum and going in to serve, or placing themselves in positions of authority with the express purpose of advocating for the poor.
This summer marks the seventh year in which groups of InterVarsity students will spend their break in various slum communities, such as Cairo, Calcutta, and Mexico City. At the end of April, about 100 Trek Alumni are meeting in San Francisco to celebrate what God has done in the last six years. During that time the group of former InterVarsity students will revisit and explore the commitments they made on the Trek and how God worked in their hearts.
Since the Trek’s inception about 800 students have spent their summers serving the urban poor. “The Global Urban Trek has provided an outlet for students who are concerned and energized about urban poverty,” said Scott.
InterVarsity has a symbiotic relationship with GUT, each has influenced the other. They feed into each other. InterVarsity believes in developing world changers, and the Trek produces those world changers – it is a manifestation of InterVarsity’s commitment and value to follow God and help to accomplish his purposes in the world.