Year of jubilee

Volunteerism | A program modeled on Mormon volunteerism has a challenge convincing Christian college students to take a year-of a lifetime-off

Issue: "Tortilla wars," March 10, 2007

Web Extra: An interview with Mission Year founder Bart Campolo

David Ro thought he was going to be a doctor. Last year, however, he says he found another calling. "I call it the three Fs-Filing, Faxing and Filling Out Forms," Ro said. For most of the past year, Ro spent his days dealing with medical records and paperwork from doctors he once dreamed of emulating. But something got in the way.

When the 21-year-old Virginia native graduated from Northwestern in 2005, he had an entire year before he planned on entering medical school in the Chicago area. That's when Ro stumbled across a brochure advertising a one-year Christian volunteer service program during his last semester at Northwestern. The length of the program intrigued him. "I had been praying about what I was going to do for a year," Ro said. "I started talking with the people. From there it clicked."

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The program is called Mission Year, and as far as founder Bart Campolo knows, it's unique among the thousands of Christian service organizations across the United States. While most volunteer programs count time in hours, Mission Year counts in months-12 to be exact.

Even as other volunteer programs thrive, Campolo says he's disappointed the Mission Year concept remains on the margins of the myriad of opportunities facing college graduates. "I thought if we start this thing with 20-30 people, in five years, we'll have a thousand," said Campolo, who says that responses from past participants are almost always positive. "Our dream was that a year of service among the poor would become a basic expectation for every Christian young person." That's a dream still unfulfilled.

Mission Year's struggle to find servants hardly mirrors the national trend. Boosted by patriotism in the wake of 9/11 and by generous incentive programs, volunteers have flocked to government-sponsored service programs in the last five years. Applications for Teach for America, a federal program placing recent college graduates into needy school districts, have tripled since 2000. Volunteerism in the Peace Corps has hit a 30-year high, while applications to AmeriCorps' program of placing willing volunteers with established nonprofits have grown by 50 percent since 2004.

Without a Christian equivalent to huge national programs like AmeriCorps, it's hard to know whether Christian volunteer service is on the rise on a national level. But according to officials with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, the ranks of concerned Baptists willing to deploy to disaster areas have increased substantially since 2000. Christian students may not be more likely to consider mission work as a career path when compared to years past, notes career development specialist Jerry King at Covenant College, but he notes that students flock to service opportunities on the side.

Instead of thousands, Mission Year sent just over 100 volunteers into the inner cities of Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Chicago to replace teams finishing up one-year assignments last August. Until then, Ro was part of the program's New Mt. Pilgrim team, a group of five Mission Year volunteers living in the West Garfield Park neighborhood in Chicago's Westside.

Ro's five-member team crammed into a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, a situation Ro admitted made the bathroom traffic flow difficult every morning. On weekdays, the team would be up by 8 a.m. showering, doing morning devotionals, and eating breakfast-generally consisting of a store-brand knock-off of Apple Jacks cereal, or, as Ro says it was known in the house, "that apple-crunch stuff."

Ro's Chicago neighborhood couldn't have been more different from his previous home life: growing up in a Korean-American family of doctors in suburban Richmond, Va. In the Chicago neighborhood, African-Americans comprise more than 98 percent of its 23,000 inhabitants. Ro paid $1.75 each way to ride the Madison bus to his day job rather than driving.

Instead of studying to become a doctor, he was doing a doctor's paperwork at a local health clinic. After work and on weekends, he was charged with reaching out to his neighbors and finding ways to meet physical needs or just to talk. "It was like I could put a face on the many passages of scripture where the writer mentions justice or looking after the widowed or the fatherless or the alien."

Unlike other poverty-fighting ministries, Mission Year doesn't set up programs. Instead, the group sends its volunteers as instant labor into established programs with a good track record and a need for volunteers. "There are thousands of programs in every inner city," Campolo said. "None of which seem to have enough good workers."


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