When you put yourself in a situation where you have to depend on God, your faith will grow." These words from Doug VanderMeulen explain why he and more than 60 other young people from across the country have decided to spend a year living, ministering, serving, and learning in Americas inner cities. These young "urban missionaries" are participants in a program called Mission Year. This grassroots youth movement was initiated by Call to Renewal and founded by Tony and Bart Campolo. In just its second full year of operation, the program has brought together young people from more than 20 states who are giving a year of their lives to do ministry in some of the places it is most needed.
Mission Year missionaries form teams of six or seven young people who live and work together in inner-city communities. The program is designed to be an experience in Christian discipleship and service. Missionaries are nurtured spiritually while being empowered to make an impact on their communities. Participants give their time and energy to four primary activities: neighborhood outreach, personal/team development, volunteer work, and participation in local churches.
Mission Year co-founder Bart Campolo says, "If I was going to boil down the vision of Mission Year into one word it would be relationships." The relationships formed by these young people are where the most powerful ministry takes place. Missionaries are expected to spend at least 10 hours a week doing what Mission Year calls neighborhood outreach, which is simply building relationships with people in their communities. This neighborhood outreach time is often a transforming experience for the young missionaries as they begin to put names and faces to some of the issues of inner-city life. For many Mission Year participants, like Leslie Starnes, getting to know the people in the neighborhood has been an experience in "breaking down stereotypes." Jerri Montejano adds that Mission Year teams have "learned to go beyond a ministry type relationship" with the people in the neighborhood, "to form real friendships that go two ways."
The missionaries also learn a great deal through the relationships they form with other participants on their team. For a full year they share all the joys and frustrations of community life. Each team lives together and regularly meets for prayer, study, and worship. "Living in community is the hardest part of the year," admits Jesse Evans, who shares a house with six other missionaries, "but a huge part of the week is set aside for team building and we have come to be like a family."
EACH MISSIONARY also spends 20 hours a week volunteering in the local community. Mission Year participants choose their own volunteer placement based on their interests and talents. The result is a wide range of involvement with groups such as Habitat for Humanity and the YMCA, as well as work with local schools, prisons, shelters, and hospitals. The goal of this volunteer service is to help support work that is already under way in these communities. Executive Director Cindy Hauger explains that Mission Years goal is to "come alongside existing programs" rather than beginning its own service projects.
All of the Mission Year teams work closely with local churches in the communities in which they live. The young people are active as lay leaders in their congregations and are encouraged to play a part in the life of the church. Many missionaries choose to sing in the choir, help with Sunday school, or assist in worship services in their churches. These churches provide a spiritual home for the participants in their year of service and help them to feel part of a larger body.
The missionaries often end up learning as much about themselves during the year as they do about the communities in which they live. Coury Deeb, part of the Mission Year team in Philadelphias Germantown, explains that in addition to being a year of learning about life in the city, Mission Year is also "a year to study yourself." Another participant, Mara Thompson, says that the program helps you "find out who you are," and she adds, "You cant understand the effect the city will have on your heart until you come."
Mission Year is currently operating in Oakland and Philadelphia and soon will expand to other cities across the nation. The program is open to any Christian young adult 19 to 29 years old. Contact Mission Year, 990 Buttonwood St., Philadelphia, PA 19123; 1-888-340-YEAR; e-mail: missionyear@ juno.com; www.missionyear.org.
JAY THOMAS is outreach assistant at Sojourners, which is an active participant in the Call to Renewal network, providing leadership and organizing support. Contact Call to Renewal, 2401 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009; (202) 328-8745; ctr@calltorenewal. com; home page:www.calltorenewal.com.