A slum in North Africa became home last summer to a group of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) students led by Professor Johonna Turner and her husband, Julian.
“They survive off of garbage. The things that we throw away, that we do not take into consideration, they take it and they recycle it for survival,” said student participant Tae Dews. Although the neighborhood looks, well, trashed to an outsider, “to the residents of this community, it is full of hope and beauty.”
Five undergraduate students, a graduate student, and two recent graduates joined the Turners and several other travelers from around the country on the trip, a Global Urban Trek sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The EMU contingent shared an apartment with 12 other people – yes, 22 total in the flat – for six weeks.
The program began with a one-week orientation in Bangkok, followed by six weeks in North Africa. Three other groups also served in United Nations-designated “slum communities,” where students give up the American mainstream in favor of spiritual discipline, learning from the urban poor, and discernment about future service opportunities.
Experiencing a different life
One of the most difficult tasks they faced, says Johonna Turner, was reciprocating the hospitality of their hosts, a Coptic Christian community. Not to mention their faith in God, joy and dancing.
Noah Haglund, a sophomore peacebuilding and development major, recounts speakers stacked upon speakers outside of their apartment, where people danced through the night to celebrate births and weddings.
“We were fasting from excess,” says Haglund, who taught English to unschooled boys working as recycling sorters. With limited clothing, technology and diets, the group focused on celebration and spiritual practices.
From the trip’s beginning, an eight-hour delay at Dulles International Airport, followed by a 12- hour flight to Beijing, followed by a 13- hour layover before the flight to their orientation in Bangkok “brought all of us closer together,” says Brittany Williams.
Johonna and Julian Turner became InterVarsity’s first black Trek directors after a Washington D.C. church contact – who became an InterVarsity coordinator – invited them to apply. Julian says their diverse group drew surprised comments from residents, who were only familiar with white Americans.
Witnesses to love and joy
Julian and Johonna pointed out that the Coptic community provided more of a learning than missions opportunity for their students.
“As Christians, we’re often anxious to find spaces where we can go in and be the hero,” says Julian. “You don’t always have to be the person starting something. Sometimes your most powerful impact is made by coming alongside someone who’s already started something.”
The Turners were joined by a support staff including graduate student Matthew Nyce and recent graduates Shirley Steward-Jones and Jolee Paden.
The students spent their days volunteering at a hospital, center for children with disabilities, community education center, daycare, or artisan women’s recycling cooperative.
Williams did physical therapy with children with cerebral palsy. Lacking money to purchase wheelchairs, mothers carried children, whether toddler or teenager, on their backs to the center. “That really hit home to know that a mother’s love is so strong, to carry her child,” says Williams.
“Agape love,” is the concept that Rachel Sturm says she’s taken away from this trip. Her friendship with a colleague taught Sturm that “living in such a poor area, you have to be happy by loving God and loving your family and your peers. Otherwise, you have nothing.”