Slum Communities at Urbana

Out of the more than 20,000 attendees who came to InterVarsity’s Urbana 06 Student Missions Convention in St. Louis in December to learn about missions, about 400 took one step further. The members of the Slum Communities of the Developing World track occupied their own hotel. Their daily Bible study highlighted scriptural applications that addressed the poorest of the poor. They listened to additional speakers whose live and serve in slum communities. And they forsook daily showers for bathing out of a bucket to experience the daily inconvenience that defines the lifestyle of the poor.

Participation in the bucket exercise was voluntary for track members. Those who took the bucket were instructed by track director Scott Bessenecker not to disparage those who showered. “If your heart allows you, it’s going to be a privilege and a joy to do it,” he told them. He didn’t hear any complaints. “I think people engaged it with joy,” he said.

Bessenecker, the author of i>The New Friars (InterVarsity Press), a new book that focuses on Christians who voluntarily reject the comforts of the 21st century to identify with and serve the urban poor, was not surprised by the lack of complaints. Even so he was surprised that the Urbana 06 bookstore sold out the book.

“This emerging movement of young people is on a quest to live deeply spiritual lives in impoverished situations in the spirit of St. Francis,” he said. “Those people were part of this track.” One of them, Grace Mendola, told the Urbana Today newspaper that she was willing to endure a small sacrifice to make a point. “It’s one small step that this group can take to try to understand the reality of what we’re learning about,” she said.

Bessenecker believes that many young people today are ready to reject the orderly, insulated, over-managed, modern lifestyle. They hunger for gritty authenticity. “People are getting more and more famished for connection with the majority world that lives such a radically different experience than us,” he said. “People recognize the cocoon and are eager to get out.”

The “new friars” that Bessenecker describes in his book are also eager to bring the light of the Gospel to the darkest corners of the earth, and to fight injustice. The Slum Communities track at Urbana educated them with sessions focused on global poverty, international sex trafficking, and children who live on the streets of many large cities. “I think in many ways these are the darkest days humans have experienced on earth,” he said. “And some of that came crashing in to the track for us at Urbana.”

Halfway through the track Bessenecker scheduled time for grieving, so that participants could express some of the emotional pain they were feeling from the information shared in the workshops. “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn,’” he noted. “There’s an appropriateness to lifting our voice and wailing. I didn’t want people to take on the despair of poverty, but to cry out for the promises of God yet unfulfilled in those places.”

Track participants were invited to take the next step in ministry to the poor by volunteering to spend at least two years in service to the urban poor. Bessenecker compares this to the novitiate stage of the monastic communities, a time of initiation when those who feel a call from God to urban ministry begin to experience the reality of the commitment. “His Spirit is actively stirring up people to take some pretty radical steps,” he said. “But I really think you need to hear specifically from God on this one.”

Bessenecker is the director of InterVarsity’s Global Projects. He’s also an ordained member of the leadership team at Madison’s Faith Community Bible Church. He’s been focused on incarnational urban ministry since his Master’s Degree studies in 1999. He said he’s had many sleepless nights since then, not because of the burden of ministry to the poor but out of the excitement and anticipation of seeing what God was doing through what he calls the “couriers of hope” in urban ministry.

“I really feel like the Spirit of God is touching this area of the church,” he said. “What I’m seeing are people who are ready to forsake opportunity in exchange for a different kind of spirituality and another kind of power that comes from self denial, making themselves dependent on God. I couldn’t not write about that.”

To hear more from Scott Bessenecker on this topic, check out this week’s podcast on InterVarsity’s audio page.
Christianity Today review of Scott’s book