Students travel across country to serve
April 13, 2015
When the Rev. Adam Roberts, Chaplain and Director of Spiritual Life, started planning this year’s Alternative Spring Break, choosing a destination was simple.
“I was in San Francisco a couple of years ago for an Institute for Clergy Excellence continuing education project,” he said. “We studied food and the role it plays in the Christian community. I made some wonderful contacts there, and knew it would be something that would challenge and transform our students.”
He also was determined that it would be more than a mission trip.
“I wanted it to be a servant-leadership and educational experience,” he said. “Going to San Francisco was key to that, because it is so different. There are Christian communities there that operate in a culture that is more secular than the Deep South, unlike anything you’d see in Atlanta or Georgia. I thought it was critical that our students experience that.”
The group’s first stop in San Francisco was Glide United Methodist Church in the Tenderloin District of the city. Glide is known for its work for social justice, as well as its many service projects. Its meal program provides about 3,000 free meals a day, three times a day, every day of the year.
“Glide is unlike any other Methodist church in the country,” Roberts said. “It is a true church of diversity, inclusive in unbelievably radical ways.”
Palm Sunday was the first day the group was able to attend worship services. Roberts described the scene at Glide as “a wide open, almost charismatic worship style with a horn section, jazz ensemble and huge mass choir made up of people from all walks of life. Definitely something our students had never seen before.”
After leaving Glide, the group hurried to the Palm Sunday service at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.
“Theirs was very over-the-top with a lot of pageantry and incense,” Roberts said. “Remember, this was on the heels of their experience at Glide.”
After the ceremony, the congregation participated in a procession around the neighborhood.
“We actually took the palms from the sanctuary out into the street. Church members handed crosses and banners to our students so they could carry them in the processional. It was strange and wonderful.”
Roberts said the students are still processing and thinking about that experience.
“This was a real window into all the different ways Christians worship around the world,” he said. “That is invaluable to them and creates a bigger picture of what faith is.”
For three mornings, the group helped serve breakfast at Glide United Methodist. Senior Caelin Campbell said he loved the opportunity to work with the homeless.
“That experience was humbling,” he said. “It put to rest some of my preconceived notions about the homeless. Some of them are just like you and me, and they all deserve to be treated with dignity, love and respect.”
Freshman Garrett Wallace agreed.
“I learned how important it is to love others and not be judgmental,” he said. “This is something that is practiced by most of the people in San Francisco. One day, I want to start programs in my own church that are similar to the ones we saw at Glide.”
A visit to a local “food farm” resonated with the students.
Free Farm, a food giveaway program, was created by an aging hippie named Tree. Every Sunday, Tree and his volunteers give away free produce at a small park in the Mission District.
When he started, Tree farmed a two-acre plot of land where a church had been destroyed by fire.
“Every year, he gave away 10,000 pounds of food that he grew on that property,” Roberts said.
When the land was sold, Tree had to find another way to continue his service. He created a network of home gardeners who bring food to the little farmer’s market in the park. Every week, a line of people from all different income levels and racial and socioeconomic backgrounds fill the park. They are allowed to take any food they’d like.
Senior Nicole Cato was touched and inspired by what she learned from Tree.
“He told us that if we want to help others, all we have to do is do what we can, in the moment,” she said. “I thought about his legacy of service and how he kept the garden’s mission alive for decades.”
And then she thought about the LaGrange College student-run soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread.
“That really inspired me to keep doing the best I can … as well as to find more ways to help with the issues of hunger and poverty in our own community.”
Roberts said Tree also touched on something that was a recurring theme.
“He told the students not to be afraid,” Roberts said. “He said fear is what drives hunger, and fear is what keeps us from reaching out to each other. He urged them to not let fear keep them from doing things in their lives.
“That ended up being the theme of the trip,” he continued. “With everybody we talked to, it always came back to fear. Over and over, we were told to not be afraid.”
The chaplain said he expects Alternative Spring Break to expand in the years to come.
“I saw this light up something in the students who went,” he said. “They are all committed to going again next year and say they all know people they want to take along.”
There will be a few changes in future years, though.
“I want the students to be involved in the process, from the concept through the planning and execution,” he said. “I don’t want them to depend on me for leadership. I will always be there to help them, but I really see this as a leadership development experience.”