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Leroy Barber, president of the urban initiative Mission Year, issued a challenge to Bluffton University students last October when he addressed them during Spiritual Life Week on campus.

Over spring break, two dozen Bluffton students took him up on it.

Traveling to Atlanta the second week of March, the Bluffton contingent answered Barber’s call to serve God by serving others. From March 7-11, the students worked in small groups in the Lakewood neighborhood of south Atlanta, largely on landscaping and trash pickup, including removal of discarded tires from a city park. They also helped with an assessment of neighborhood needs and with informing residents about a community meeting to address them.

Those concerns are many in a large, "economically depressed" neighborhood where, in places, nearly half the houses are vacant, said Stephen Intagliata, Bluffton’s campus pastor who traveled to Atlanta as well. But he and the students also saw a commitment to community improvement by residents.

Their work was what struck Keith Suter most about the experience. "While there is strong support from volunteers and outside organizations, their work would be useless without the support and commitment of those already living in the area," noted Suter, a Bluffton junior from Pandora, Ohio, and Grace Mennonite Church.

Another junior, Andrew Keeler of Bluffton, offered an example of an effort at urban renewal. "When picking up trash, we came across a contractor who was renovating a worn-down house," said Keeler, a member of St. John Mennonite Church outside Pandora. "Despite being a single house in a large community of a big city, such work of preserving what was once lost signifies the hope that people have in Atlanta for their own city."

"I could sense their desire to make it once again a good and safe place to live," senior Marcus Unruh said, adding that he was "instilled with the same hope of what could become of the neighborhood. I have the desire to go back in five years just to see how things will have changed."

Intagliata echoed the students’ sentiments, saying "it was inspiring to see residents working to make a difference in their community, and the hope that they have for the future."

Residents relayed their gratitude for the students’ assistance through Mike Nienaber, a development coordinator for Mission Year who hosted some of the students in his home. "I wanted to let you know how blessed we were by the work you all did," he wrote to Intagliata. "Everyone who worked with your students had nothing but positive things to say about the students, their attitudes and their work ethic. Please let everyone know that their work has not only beautified our neighborhood but also encouraged those living and working here to keep serving!"

Most of the students stayed at GlenCastle, a former prison converted to affordable housing for the poor. They worked from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, spending the better part of one day hauling 230 discarded tires out of a ravine in South Bend Park. Their work on the needs assessment also entailed taking photos of houses and gathering data about them, such as whether they were occupied or vacant.

A neighborhood resident was part of each of the seven groups of Bluffton students and staff, who also prepared a community garden for planting, painted trash cans and sorted and priced clothes at a thrift store.

In the evenings, they went to a community center to worship and listen to speakers interested in neighborhood revitalization. The speakers "talked about making the community a safe place for children to grow up," and about starting after-school activities, attracting business and creating jobs, Intagliata said.

The Bluffton workers also heard twice from Barber, an Atlanta resident who encouraged their efforts to help the city. He cited Jeremiah 29:7, where God exhorts the Israelites, exiled in Babylon, to "seek the peace of the city where I have sent you," Intagliata related.

"Our peace and well-being is connected to the peace and well-being of those around us," the campus pastor said. "I’m really proud of all the hard work" the students did.

Andrea Allan, a first-year student from Fayette, Ohio, said the trip taught her "I can serve the Lord in my own community, and that I do not have to go far to see that there is need." Allan, a member of North Clinton Mennonite Church in Wauseon, Ohio, added that "it was neat to witness God in our own group as well as the community we were in."

Suter called the trip "a humbling reminder of the poverty that dominates many urban areas, as well as a reminder of the glimmers of hope that can arise from seemingly devastated communities."

Said Unruh, of Wayland, Iowa, and Wayland Mennonite Church: "I left Atlanta with the realization of how people can change the area they live in as long as they have the desire and the drive to do so."


Bluffton public relations, 3/18/11