by Sharyn Kopf—Cedarville, Ohio
It’s probably the most famous secret at Cedarville University. For two weekends every spring, another two every fall, and once during the summer session, students in Dr. Jeff Cook’s Introduction to Urban Ministry class spend three days homeless and immersed in poverty. And that’s all they know about it … until they get there.
“Part of the experience is the unknown factor,” says Cook, an associate professor of Bible at the University. “But it’s a strenuous, stretching time.”
The weekends not only offer students a unique perspective on life, but they also reflect Cook’s philosophy on teaching. “It should engage all we are — spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually,” he says. “I’m committed to teaching the whole person — to providing exposure beyond just talking about it.”
For those involved in the three-day adventure, it represents a paradigm shift in how they think about ministry, life and God.
A 2008 youth ministries graduate, Eric Lapata says he will never be able to look at the poor in the same way again, now viewing them through the eyes of Christ. “My perspective on the Church and my career has been turned upside down.” Currently serving as a youth intern at his church in Sandusky, Ohio, he has brought to his work a passion for the underprivileged and for fighting injustice. He says, “I want to make others aware of God’s heart for the poor.”
This is exactly the kind of result Cook hopes for. He points out that Scripture resonates with how God cares for those who struggle in this life and how He expects His followers to do the same. Unfortunately, Cook says, many evangelicals don’t have the proper context and assume people are always poor because of irresponsibility.
As a result of the weekend, Elizabeth Conkling ’08, a comprehensive Bible graduate from Royersford, Penn., has begun to recognize the frequent discrepancy between Christ’s teaching and the Church’s attitude. “I now understand that the pursuit of the American dream goes against the grain of Scripture,” she says. “In order to pursue a more godly life, I must be ready and willing to submit myself to suffering on behalf of others. This demands a balanced concern for the whole person, concern for justice, and pursuit of peace.”
A companion to the poverty weekend is an experience Cook puts his Contemporary World Missions class through, only this time they spend three days as refugees. The experience includes being pursued on foot by a rebel army and living in a refugee camp … all without leaving Greene County, Ohio.
“I want to immerse my students in a parallel universe,” Cook says of his weekends. “If they see that the poor have faces and names, they will discover that the stereotypes of evangelical suburbanism really are stereotypes.”
Students discover two main things during their weekend among the underprivileged — two wings of the same airplane, according to Cook. First, they are astonished by how little they know about poverty; and second, they are surprised at how evangelicals treat the poor. The experience exposes God’s view of race and culture and removes the blinders of prosperity. Often, the result changes the trajectories of students’ lives, causing them to switch majors and career goals and graduate with a heart for the city. And they discover what it really means to minister.
“It’s one of those experiences that will truly last a lifetime,” says Jeff Cooney ’09, a youth ministries major. “I can’t think of any experience in a classroom setting that could possibly have as much of an impact on a person — not only educationally but spiritually and emotionally as well.”
Cook has taken hundreds of students on poverty and refugee weekends for 10 years now, and these students have gained a vision for the city’s poor, a vision many are carrying into their ministries and careers. And in the true spirit of “paying it forward,” they are impacting hundreds, even thousands, of lives.
“If we’re committed to the biblical truth that Jesus died for all,” Cook concludes, “then we have to see that population. If we don’t make an effort to engage, they will always be invisible.”
Sounds like we could all use such an eye-opening experience.