On a hard gym floor at Eastside High School in Greenville, S.C., dozens of high-school students are enjoying their summer vacation. Eastside High is their home this week, and their day job is scraping paint, hanging drywall, and pouring cement. The week's work is worth $260, but these kids aren't earning the $260, they're paying it out of their own pockets.
Forgoing the couch, the pool, and paying jobs, the 125 students hard at work in Greenville are among more than 25,000 students who will participate this summer in World Changers, a home-mission effort sponsored by the North American Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Thousands more youth in other denominations will likewise spend their summer extending compassion in concrete ways to people in need.
The SBC created World Changers in 1990 as an effort to get the convention's high-school students more involved in home-mission projects. The idea was that as students worked to change other people's lives, their own lives would be changed as well. Fifteen years later, the group's mission is broader and more ambitious. According to its website, World Changers has become "a strategic plan to eliminate substandard housing for many communities."
That's because substandard housing is "a chronic problem in the United States," according to Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization for SBC. Mr. Burton says that World Changers aims to systematically revitalize low-income housing in communities and rebuild self-respect in residents while sharing the gospel.
World Changers takes a unique approach by partnering with housing authorities in many cities to work on renovations for substandard homes. "They provide the material and we provide the laborers," says Mr. Burton, who notes that the partnership drives down the costs for both the cities and the volunteers and allows both to accomplish more. "We've been doing the faith-based model for a long time," he says.
World Changers expects to send more than 25,000 volunteers to help renovate 1,300 to 1,400 homes this summer alone. Mr. Burton says working on a few homes has a way of affecting a whole neighborhood. It's not unusual for other residents to begin fixing up their houses when they see their neighbor's home restored: "We see a lot of self-respect brought back to these communities."
One of Mr. Burton's favorite World Changers success stories is about a resident who thanked a volunteer team who worked on his home for a week by telling them: "You didn't just restore my home, you restored my dignity."
Students from junior high to college will travel to 93 sites this summer to work on construction and community-service projects in low-income neighborhoods from Alaska to Florida. The teams won't just dig holes or pour concrete. They'll also plant flowers and improve landscaping, encouraging residents to cultivate homes that are both structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing.
Some groups will provide relief to residents in areas of Florida still struggling to recover from last year's hurricanes. The students will also participate in community outreach and evangelism, and they are required to complete a pre-trip Bible study in preparation.
Mr. Burton says youth will also speak with residents about their faith and adds that opportunities to talk about the gospel are "an outgrowth of sharing Christ in tangible ways."
As many as 150 students from all over the country travel to each World Changers work site. The organization forms several crews of 10 to 15 students for each project by mixing youth from different churches to encourage students to extend themselves beyond their own circles. Chaperones accompany youth groups to sites, and World Changers recruits summer-long volunteers to serve as crew chiefs, supervisors, and runners.
According to Mr. Burton, World Changers hopes the lives of youth will be changed along with the people they help: "We want them to see that God can use them, and help them see how they can go to the next level."
The SBC isn't the only large church body helping youth groups serve others during their summer vacation. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) will also send youth to dozens of mission projects over the next three months through Mission to the World (MTW), the denomination's mission agency. According to MTW's website, youth will work on projects this summer in both urban and rural areas, as well as several Native American reservations. Some groups will travel to Mexico.
Projects range from construction to children's ministry, and several projects combine both. Youth groups work with PCA missionaries or churches at each work site to help strengthen and bolster the ministries of pastors and missionaries throughout the rest of the year.
One of the ministries MTW hopes to help bolster this summer is on Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, where Tom Pollock has been pastor of a small church for 15 years. The reservation was the grisly scene of the March 21 school shooting at Red Lake High that left nine people, including the shooter, dead. Alicia White, a 14-year-old member of Mr. Pollock's church, was among the slain. (See "Trail of tears," April 2, 2005.)
Mr. Pollock says renovating the home where Alicia lived with her grandmother, four brothers, and three sisters was one of the first projects that summer groups began working on last month. Eight more groups will travel to the reservation this summer to work on construction projects, day camps, and vacation Bible schools.
Mr. Pollock says the work of the visiting youth groups helps his church gain credibility on a reservation where traditional Native Americans are often hostile toward Christianity. "It really does help our relationships with all people here, even the traditional people," he says. "They come to understand that we're of good will even though they don't like our message."
World Changers' Mr. Burton says participating in mission trips within the United States helps teach youth that they don't have to go overseas to serve in missions. "Sometimes we tend to think of missions as something far, far away," he says. "But the truth is, the mission field is just next door."