YORK, Pa.,  (BRN) – In March 2020, college students from across the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, along with Baptist Resource Network (BRN) collegiate missionaries, committed their spring breaks to serving at disaster relief sites in and out of the country, unaware that these trips would be their last for 730 days.

“I can recall my predecessor, Dr. Robert Turner, was able to pull people back from various mission assignments [in] North Carolina [and] Puerto Rico right as the world came to a grinding halt,” recalled BRN Director of Next Collegiate Ministry Dr. Stanley Williams.

“At that point, we all lamented the fact that this would mean the suspending of the opportunity for college students to go around the state of Pennsylvania, the state of New Jersey, around the nation, even around the world to be involved in what it means to be on mission.”

Now, almost two years to the day, college students and BRN NextGen missionaries have made history by embarking on the first BRN collegiate mission trip since the pandemic.

On March 6, students from Penn State University (PSU), Clarion University, Montgomery County Community College (Montco) and Delaware Valley University (DelVal) traveled to York, Pennsylvania, to revive the tradition of spending spring break on mission.

Throughout the week, students engaged in disaster relief by fixing up homes that were damaged by Hurricane Ida last fall.

“We have quite a history, now, of collegiates using their spring break to do disaster relief ministry,” said BRN Director of Disaster Relief Kenton Hunt.

“So, for me, what it meant was an underscoring and a reinforcement of that relationship, which is very powerful, and just being able to see collegiates give up what’s called a ‘play time’ in order to serve others is very heartwarming.”

The Work Done

The group of nearly 15 college students was divided into two teams and sent to two separate work sites in York.

The first site was a home owned by the Rice family, who, just days before Ida, had finished renovating their basement.

“Based on the generosity of their Uncle Clarence, [the Rice family] finished renovating their basement. Then the floods came and filled their basement with water and, essentially, ruined all of the work he had just finished doing,” explained Williams.

Starting from scratch, the students rolled up their sleeves and got cozy with buckets of Drylok and slabs of drywall.

BRN Next Collegiate Ministry Director Stanley Williams and Clarion student Logan Donnel cut and prepared slabs of drywall.

Clarion University student Logan Donnel headed up the drywall placement saying, “We’re putting up 42-inch drywall pieces that way they [will] have a basement one day. They don’t have any walls right now, [so] we’re putting in walls…so that one day they can have a place of gathering and community.”

The second worksite had a similar story as the first, with knee-high flood damage impacting the family’s basement.

“Because a lot of the mortar has been corroded, the water was pouring into the basement from the holes in the brick, so we’re going to fill those in very well and then make sure those are clean and good to go,” explained Clarion University Collegiate Missionary Scott Underhill.

“We are also replacing the water heater and just getting their basement to where he can move stuff back in and be able to live and function also with his basement.”

The team also spent time replacing three windows and patching up brick that was damaged on the exterior of the home.

For one student, this worksite hit home.

“This is my community. When I found out it [the trip] was in York, I was like, I might as well give back, you know, because I’m right around the corner. So, it was a great opportunity and everything just worked out for me to be here,” said DelVal student Kelvin Brown.

The Bonds Made

For three days, these students worked side by side, serving strangers with fellow peers that they had only known for a matter of days.

“We have a common goal when we go to serve. So, we build a relationship really quickly and we get to know each other and everybody’s really willing to open up and share their story, which has been really meaningful to me. [It] adds more value to the work that we’re doing because I know I’m doing it alongside really good people,” said Penn State student Annie Cotton.

Clarion University student Danika Moose echoed Cotton’s sentiment, saying, “I experienced something I never experienced before…a group of college students that never met before just came together and we bonded so quickly and there were no cliques or anything.”

She continued: “I heard other people’s stories and I know those other people at the other site, even though I didn’t spend all day with them. And the people on my site I became really close with and it was something really cool and powerful.”

The teams quickly bonded over the course of three days.

These quick connections and in-depth friendships are no surprise to collegiate ministers Eric Reiber and Brady Rennix, who have witnessed students come together time and time again for a purpose beyond themselves.

“We have a combination of students that would never cross paths except for an experience like this,” said Montco and DelVal campus minster Brady Rennix.

He continued: “What we’ve seen is the mature students mentor, disciple and encourage the younger students and so, we’re watching a group form that is going to take this back to the college campus, and, hopefully, they’re going to take also the idea that serving God is important.”

The intermixing of multiple universities largely contributes to this opportunity for growth and discipleship amongst the students.

“One of the things that we’ve started to do as a team is pull multiple campuses together. It’s important, because from the different backgrounds and different schools almost an iron sharpening iron happens on these trips,” said PSU collegiate minister Eric Reiber.

“Students get passionate about the college ministry back on campus as they do about the work that we’re doing in the homes. So, even though the ministry type is very different, the passion for the Lord, the iron sharpening iron times that happen on these trips – even in three to four days – the students who are on those trips come back invigorated [and] ready to go,” added Reiber. 

The Impact for Eternity

By March 9, the students were securing their final sheets of drywall, touching up any missed spots with Drylok and preparing to say goodbye to their homeowners and new friends.

“One way I saw God work this week is just everybody coming together. I think the first night when we all got together, we weren’t all as close as we are leaving now,” said DelVal student Khashad Gillespie.

“I think just building those new bonds and seeing each other come together as one to help people in desperate need, it’s just great to see God bring us together for something good,” added Gillespie.

Montco student Emily Duggan echoed Gillespie’s thoughts towards the friendships made, by saying, “This trip has impacted [me}…the friendship, the service and how I’ve grown close to the Lord during this trip has been so awesome.”

After long work days, the students had down time to play games and worship.

Another student, Leah Stroebel from Clarion University, recalled how a gospel-conversation moment impacted her.

“There was one of the guys who came on our trip [and] he wasn’t really sure about Christianity…[and] there was a moment where we were talking about one of the big points in the Bible and just everyone gathered around and it was this hushed moment.”

She continued: “It just reminded me of in the Bible when Jesus taught how everyone would just sit and listen…one of  the very wise men, who was on this trip, was just sharing the good news of the Lord and everyone was sitting and listening quietly and was awestruck by his wisdom and how the Lord was using him during that time.”

Williams affirmed these influential moments by noting how they are often cultivated on trips like these.

“Young people learn to love the least of these on the basis of that they have a life changing experience.”

He continued: “Worship services are awesome. retreats and conferences are great, but I do not think there’s anything that compares to what can happen in the life of an adult or a young adult when we think about what are the best ways…we can invest in the life of a young person that will pay dividends for the sake of the Kingdom [and] for the sake of the local church. I think the short-term mission opportunities are just that.”

During the York trip, BRN churches Country and Town Baptist and Red Land Baptist contributed to the students’ experience by providing housing and dinner for them. The network’s disaster relief team provided shower trailers and tools for the teams as well. If you want to impact the Kingdom by contributing to the BRN’s NextGen ministry, keep your eyes out for this year’s State Missions Offering as it will benefit a variety of NextGen projects.