Last week I had the privilege of attending the Urbana 09 Missions Conference put on every three years by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It was powerful to be worshiping Christ with 17,000 young adults who were saying "Here am I Lord, send me."
The Urbana Missions Conference is the most recent expression of the Student Volunteer Movement which swept this country in the 19th Century and mobilized thousands of people to start voluntary societies (what are often called parachurch organizations today) to help recruit, support, and send missionaries all across the world.
Samuel Mills was one of the first. In 1806 he felt that call as a student at Williams College when he and some fellow students were praying in a field during a thunderstorm. This Haystack Prayer Meeting birthed the missions movement not only among students but among people of all ages and Protestant churches of all types.
Many of these missionaries soon became activists as they encountered poverty, sickness, and injustice. Samuel Mills's heart was broken for the oppression of slaves; he founded the American Colonization Society in 1817, with the purpose to evangelize the slaves in America, work toward their liberation, and then repatriate them to Africa. He believed that if these slaves could be lifted from their miserable condition, they could then be sent back to Africa to evangelize their own people.
The theme of Urbana 09 was "He Dwelt Among Us." You could often hear speakers and workshop leaders quoting Eugene Peterson's version of John 1:14 "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood." Students were challenged to identify with the needs of the least, the last, and the lost. They were challenged to relocate to urban slums, where 1/6th of the world lives. And they were challenged to relocate to urban America where crime and poverty still widely persist today.
Sojourners, World Vision, and International Justice Mission hosted the Advocacy & Poverty Track where we challenged students to understand advocacy as mission. We did not want to just talk about advocacy but actually do it. Together we launched the Human Wrong Campaign which is focused on ending child slavery. Students wore t-shirts to identify with the 2 million children who will be forced into slavery this year. They gathered over 3,000 signatures from other students to support the Child Protection Compact Act to help end child slavery and many of them are planning to organize campaigns back on their campuses.
History shows us that social movements start when people of privilege make the choice to join those who are being oppressed in the fight for justice. Moses made that choice when he identified with the Israelites and went to Pharaoh to help lead them out of slavery. Jesus made that choice when he came down from heaven to earth and entered into our pain and suffering. Now today a whole new generation of young Christians, many of whom come from educated and privileged backgrounds (like many at Urbana), are making that choice to say no to the American dream and yes to God's dream for a better world. Thanks be to God.
Aaron Graham serves as the National Field Organizer and Justice Revival Director at Sojourners.