Some people in Brooklyn, New York, and Perry County, Alabama, have one thing in common. They have been shown God's love by energetic, spirit-filled Samford University representatives. Ditto for women at a rescue mission in Nashville, Tenn., and foragers at a city dump in Venezuela.
This year's spring break in March found many Samford students on mission trips that left an indelible imprint on those served and those who served. While most were on trips sponsored by Samford's University Ministries, others, including Beeson Divinity School students, hooked up with trips organized by local church congregations.
Landon Eckhardt led a University Ministries-sponsored effort at the 11,000-member Brooklyn Tabernacle. The inner-city church sponsors a Downtown Learning Center at which adults receive free tutoring to help gain their GED, and a Prayer Station street evangelism ministry.
"As we tutored, we spent time building relationships with these adults, ultimately sharing the love of Christ and praying with them," said Eckhardt, who says most of the GED students had left school because of drug addictions, pregnancies and gangs.
"Mixed in with us pouring out to people, we had many opportunities to be poured into," said Eckhardt, a sophomore finance major from Dallas, Texas, who has felt a call to ministry.
At the Prayer Station, the Samford team fanned out to parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan passing out tracts, asking for prayer needs, and praying with people.
"It was common for the people to begin weeping during our prayers as conviction or hurt set in," recalls Eckhardt, who was an intern at the non-denominational church last summer.
The 11-member Samford student team was accompanied by nursing professor Elaine Marshall and her husband, Larry. They were visited by Samford president Dr. Andy Westmoreland and his wife, Jeanna, who observed the group at work and enjoyed a tour of the Tabernacle.
In Perry County, volunteers painted a community center, led day camps, worked at a local thrift store and cleaned an elementary school. All the while, they were nurturing relationships built in recent years as Samford has led economic and education initiatives in the area.
"Samford has been pretty intentional in re-investing and maintaining involvement where our roots still lie," said University Ministries student president Lyndsay Cogdill, who makes monthly service and mission trips to Marion, where Samford was founded as Howard College in 1841.
"Every time I travel to Marion, the benefits and encouragement of the lasting relationships I've made there tug at my heart, and remind me that the world is bigger than the one I often create for myself," said Cogdill. The junior psychology major from Lakeland, Fla., believes the increased participation by locals at Samford-planned seminars and activities is due to sustained friendships and the "verbal networking" that results.
Samford's Word Players Christian drama group took their show on the road to Nashville, Tenn., where they performed at a nursing home and in churches, and served at a women's rescue mission.
The Student Ministries Choir sang in Baptist churches and at a Christian elementary school in St. Louis, Mo. During the 6-day trip, the 41 singers helped with projects at a subsidized housing area and the Missouri Baptist Children's Home, where they also presented a concert.
Twenty students worked with Word to Works Ministry in Jacksonville, Fla., where they served at an AIDS hospital, worked with a shelter for the homeless and tutored children.
The mission trips underscore University Ministries' desire to encourage students to exercise and grow their faith through fellowship and service to others, says director of student ministries April Robinson.
"The stories they tell upon their return inspire and invite others to seek and serve God wherever and whenever the opportunity arises," said Robinson.
Beeson Divinity student Sam Fielder spent his spring break in Venezuela with a group sponsored by Birmingham's Church at Brook Hills. In Maracaibo, the country's second largest city, volunteers did construction work and led a neighborhood street carnival that provided a backdrop for relating with local residents.
After five days of intense block laying, concrete pouring and roofing, Fielder's workmates almost finished a two-room block house that replaced a one-room tin shack for a single mother and her two small children.
Fielder also helped distribute bags of groceries in the neighborhood, using the opportunity to pray with the families and share God's love.
"It was incredible to see how we were able to provide for their physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. The thankfulness that they showed was amazing," said Fielder, whose biggest eye-opener came one night when he was part of a small group that left the carnival for a drive to the city dump.
There, he said, a community of about 1,000 adults and children live and forage.
"I'll be haunted for the rest of my life by the things that I saw that day," said Fielder, who is from West Palm Beach, Fla. "Every meal that I have eaten since then has been a little difficult as I think about people, created in God's image, digging through mountains of garbage to find their next meal or anything of value to try and sell."
"We prayed over them and the dump area itself," said Fielder, who says his many "why" questions about the situation are answered by God's words that remind him that one day there will be no more pain, no more tears, no more dump, no more hunger.
"These words comforted me in an indescribable way and gave me a better understanding of the hope that faith in God offers," said Fielder." Suffice it to say that it was an intense day."