Last December InterVarsity hosted 22,000 people in St. Louis from across the country and around the globe for the Urbana Student Missions Convention. The scope was global and the plenary speakers, music, and workshops of Urbana 06 all aimed at transforming lives, leading to careers of service around the world in response to God’s calling.
In March the focus was on St. Louis neighborhoods, as InterVarsity’s CityLights ministry hosted 221 students and staff from across the country in St. Louis for the annual spring plunge. Once again lives were being transformed, but this time through 6,000 hours of community service contributed to local ministries that serve the disadvantaged, as well as through mentoring, multi-cultural worship, Bible study, and in-home visits.
CityLights is directed by Gerry and Sharie Chappeau and is now in its 14th year. Urban plunges were also experienced by InterVarsity students in cities such as New Orleans, Chicago, Milwaukee, and New York this spring.
Quality mentoring relationships and not just service opportunities are the key to the success of CityLights, Gerry reported. So while students worked in feeding programs, inner-city alternative schools, refugee resettlement ministries, job skills training, and similar outreaches, they also had meals together with local professionals who apply their Christian values to their professional callings and lifestyle choices.
“Students were taught God’s purposes and challenged to review their own,” Gerry added. “They met refugees and ‘urban poor’ whose stories are devastating and surreal and yet in many of them there was joy, vibrant faith, genuine warmth and hospitality.”
The most important message conveyed during the urban plunges is that only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is there true hope for the inner city; out of the radical depths of God’s grace comes racial reconciliation, lifestyles of justice and mercy, and careers dedicated toward service to others.
“I feel that the truth of the Gospel was put into action in ways I never expected,” commented Brett, a student at the University of Northern Iowa. “I encountered a new Gospel on a new level which I had never seen.”
“I was able to serve others, learn how to love like Jesus, live in mercy, pray for the city, eat good food, and meet great people,” commented Sherene, a student from the University of Houston.
Ashley, a student at the State University of New York, Geneseo, commented, “This week was one of the most amazing weeks of my life.”
“My original goals were to help others,” commented Emilee, of the University of Evansville. “I did not expect my heart to be transformed as it did.”
One group of students built a wheelchair access ramp for an elderly widow who had not been able to leave her home in years without specialized assistance. When the ramp was finished, they wheeled her into her backyard for a tear-filled celebration with balloons and cake. A group that had rehabbed the home of another widow, returned to St. Louis later so that they could celebrate her birthday with her.
“The students saw the city, served the city, embraced the city, and many began to fall in love with the city,” Gerry reported. “What is so humbling is that God seems to bless in inordinate ways when we pursue His heart for the least. We have honestly never been involved with anything in our lives seemingly more impactful on students, than in simply leading them in the fresh footprints of Jesus as He walks in the alleys and byways of our broken communities and cares for those He finds there.”
Campus staff who work with these students reported that after the urban plunge there was a noticeable increase in involvement in evangelism, cross-cultural relationships, community and campus outreach, and Scripture study.