It seems difficult to imagine that Hurricane Katrina, one of the most significant natural disasters in the history of the United States, happened 10 years ago. It seems even more difficult to imagine that many of the current generation of incoming college students were only 8 years old when New Orleans was 80% underwater.
For each of those 10 years now, InterVarsity New England has brought teams of students hundreds of miles from home, and significantly outside of their cultural comfort zone, to provide them with a three-fold opportunity:
- to serve the people of New Orleans,
- to learn about justice alongside their classmates and friends, and
- to have an open space to explore Jesus together.
Every year, native New Englanders ask me why InterVarsity spends so much energy and so many resources on recruiting to ServeUP New Orleans. These well-meaning people frequently ask questions like,
"Why are you still taking students to New Orleans? Wasn't Katrina 10 years ago? Isn't there anything closer/more local that would be just as meaningful for ministry?"
I have been staffing this trip for three years, enduring the 30-hour bus rides, general lack of sleep, and unexpected logistics’ disruptions. In the midst of these difficulties, I frequently ask myself,
"Is it really worth all of this?"
When the stress of managing student schedules, putting a team together, and raising scholarship funds combines with these conversations I frequently find myself thinking,
"Is this really, really worth it?"
Through a series of encounters during this year’s trip, I was once again reminded of exactly why ServeUP is worth all the effort.
On the first night of the trip, I was sitting on a bench with a student who had never left Maine. She is getting ready to finish her two-year degree and came on ServeUP because she wanted to figure out what she believes about God before finishing her time on-campus. While listening to her ask vulnerable and honest questions about her beliefs, I realized that this was the first time she was having this conversation with anyone, right before she heads out into the wide world of resumes and job interviews, and I remembered that ServeUP is worth it.
During the trip, I repeatedly sat with two 2 small group leaders. As I coached them in leading their group conversations each night, I saw their hearts breaking for the students in their circles who don't know who Jesus is. I saw a young man who grew up in a non-religious household have a powerful encounter with God in prayer, and I saw a young woman admit to a circle of new friends that she has been carrying around bitterness and resentment that she finally wants Jesus to heal.
On the last night of the trip, I looked around a circle of over 20 community college students, most of whom didn't know each other a week prior. They were excitedly sharing stories and plans to bring this new community back to their campus. Hearing the joy in their voices was almost overwhelming, and I found myself imagining what could happen if they brought this sense of togetherness, of belonging, back to a two-year commuter school that seriously lacks any sense of relational community, and I remembered that ServeUP is worth it.
There is something truly sweet and special about helping to lead a group of 80 young adults in vulnerable, honest conversations about the ways their own lives, relationships, and campuses are broken, and how God-in-Jesus wants nothing more than to see that brokenness healed.
ServeUP, with all the headaches and lack of sleep, stirs up these conversations more genuinely and more frequently than any other ministry program I've been part of.
Perhaps it's the instant community created when 50 people survive 30 hours on a bus together, or maybe it's that most of these students have never had a true cross-cultural experience before, have never sweated and served alongside people of different beliefs, or have never seen with their own eyes the neighborhoods that were submerged under 20 feet of water on all those news channels 10 years ago.
I suspect it's all of these factors combined, with others that I haven't mentioned, that make ServeUP truly "greater than the sum of its parts." Regardless of what explanation I can offer, all I can say in the end is that it's a transformative week. Everyone there, myself included, experience God in unexpected and delightful ways, and in my three years of InterVarsity staff-work, I have not finished a week of ServeUP without experiencing true astonishment at the changes I see in the hearts of college students, cynics and skeptics included.
And that's why it's worth it.