On a recent Wednesday evening, a youth group from Indianapolis lounged on couches in the gathering space of the URBAN MISSION INN, exhausted from a day of serving but teeming with excitement to share their experiences. Their leader posed a number of questions, one being: “How has your definition of justice changed this week?” A hand shot up — “I used to think of justice as something that would be ideal, but now I know that it’s something we need to have.”
The Urban Mission Inn at Union Avenue Christian Church provides mission groups the opportunity to immerse themselves in a week of challenging, enriching, rewarding experiences that open their minds and hearts to the needs of urban communities in metropolitan St. Louis. Before arriving at the Urban Mission Inn, groups are encouraged to ponder the question — “What is the role of the Church in the world?” — in preparation for the week they spend learning, serving, experiencing different cultures and engaging in times of fellowship and reflection.
From the moment groups walk through the door, Urban Mission Inn staff, along with adult sponsors and youth leaders, work to cultivate a heightened sense of self-awareness by leading groups in discussions and experiences around issues of economic justice, food security, poverty, racism, privilege, and cultural diversity.
In Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World, Sharon Parks and her collaborators looked for commonalities among people who were living "lives of commitment." Among the men and women they studied, only one kind of experience was common to them all. Each one, early in his or her life, had spent a time experiencing life outside their own "normal." This type of experience is life changing and shapes vocation for the rest of a person's life [authors discovered]. Union Avenue Christian Church's Urban Mission Inn experience is shaped to provide just such a culturally immersive opportunity for groups of youth and adults.
Youth and adults who have visited the Urban Mission Inn leave having experienced something outside their day-to-day experiences in their home communities. Over and over again, our visitors share with us stories expressing how their Urban Mission Inn experience has brought their youth together, broadened their perspectives on life, challenged their comfort zones, empowered their youth, and created opportunity to share sacred space.
Beginning with an initial investment of less than $2,500, the Urban Mission Inn was whipped into shape by congregational volunteers who cleaned out years of accumulated clutter, painted walls, laid carpet, and built a few bunk beds on the third floor of Union Avenue Christian Church. In 2009, the first guests checked into the Urban Mission Inn, and an outreach ministry to our community was begun. Additional renovation in 2014 has provided space for showers and improvements to other areas of the Urban Mission Inn, but it remains a simple space with the focus on daily service to community partners.
Groups visiting the Urban Mission Inn spend the majority of their week serving at a variety of community partners: community gardens; organizations that serve the needs of those living in poverty; organizations that provide transitional housing for women and children seeking refuge from domestic violence; organizations that provide services and transitional housing to the homeless; and urban neighborhoods. These areas of service open minds to the complexity of needs and opportunities in metro St. Louis and in the groups’ own backyards.
Over the course of the last seven years, the Urban Mission Inn has housed more than 2,600 guests who have provided more than 50,000 hours of service in our community! This past summer, we hosted 304 guests who contributed a combined 6,395 hours of service to our community. We welcomed groups from as far away as Arlington, Texas, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Rockwood, Tennessee, and we welcomed groups from as close as St. Charles and Canton, Missouri. All but one of the groups were from Disciples of Christ congregations. The groups had incredible experiences serving in mission throughout the metro area — they danced in the rain and they danced to the rhythms of Congolese worship songs; they enjoyed frozen custard at Ted Drewes and they fed the homeless; they experienced church outside the walls of the sanctuary and they became the church in the streets of our city; they sorted clothing for people in need, they packed boxes of food to be distributed at food banks, and they learned about sharing the bread of life and being the bread of life in their everyday lives.
At the end of the week, the youth leader from Indianapolis asked her youth: What is the role of the church in the world? Their answers speak for themselves:
"The role role of the church is to break down barriers and create opportunities for all.”
"The role role of the church is to teach in order to send out good servants and neighbors to address issues of injustice.”
"The role of the church is to educate [its people] about different cultures so that we might respect, appreciate and engage with them.”
"The role role of the church is to build community and sustainable relationships.”
"The role of the church is to teach while learning.”
"The role role of the church is to lead by example, living in harmony and in abundant relationships with one another.”
"The role role of the church is to ‘do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God.’”
"The role role of the church is to be God’s love in the world.”
"The role role of the church in the world is to open doors to better understanding.”
To learn more about the Urban Mission Inn at Union Avenue Christian Church visit http://www.union-avenue.org/urban-mission-inn/
Story and photos courtesy of UACC's Ron Lindsey.