Jaden Vander Berg & Luke Venhuizen- Staff Writers
For most college students, spring break is a time to relax from classes, spend time with friends and party in a warm, tropical climate. Co-eds set their eyes on Cancun, South Padre Island or Daytona Beach to get away from the frigid winter that plagued campuses over the past few months.
However, not every college student chooses a “fun in the sun” vacation. Through Dordt’s spring break organization PLIA (Putting Love Into Action), over 120 students went to 15 different cities across the United States to serve the members of those communities.
PLIA expanded their work sites this year to include working with the homeless in Austin, TX, aiding refugees in St. Louis, MO, and other service opportunities.
Our (Jaden and Luke’s) group of eight embarked on the eight-and-a-half hour drive to St. Louis on Friday after the last classes were done. We packed up the van and left the Kuyper parking lot at 3:15 pm. In our group, each individual was relatively a stranger to each other, and among the eight were students from each of the four classes. However, we wouldn’t be strangers by the end of the week. Soon we would grow together through shared experiences that ranged from sharing testimonies, cleaning fish tanks or taking way too many selfies.
The team – Aaron Hooyer, Luke Venhuizen, Jaden Vander Berg, Hannah Brouwer, Madi Anderson, Jo-Anna Aalbers, Kimberley Marques and Sarah Van Hulzen – arrived at a church in St. Louis just after midnight to spend the night. The next day we drove to a former school for the deaf that is now owned by an organization called City Lights.
City Lights didn’t allow us to check in before 8:00 p.m., so our group took advantage of our location and set out to see the tourist sites that St. Louis has to offer. Thanks to the PLIA committee’s photo scavenger hunt, we kept ourselves easily entertained everywhere we went.
When we made it to City Lights Saturday evening we headed to the third floor, where City Lights resides, passing a women’s ministry on the first floor and refugees from the Congo living on the second floor along the way. We were greeted by two of our leaders for the week, Chris and Tanya, as well as their one-year-old son, Christopher. We talked with them until the arrival of three other schools, who would also be staying there for the week.
After a quick orientation and a read-through of the rules, rules that included the likes of “Lights out and quiet time” at 11:00 p.m. and “No romantic touch,” we met as a Dordt team to do our nightly devotions to wrap up the day.
After breakfast Sunday morning, we had the opportunity to experience the church that is a part of the City Lights organization. Over half of the songs were sung in other languages, such as Spanish, French and Swahili. It was a unique service, unlike most of our home churches.
After a weekend of getting to know the city, we finally started our work with Oasis International. The week was a mix of building maintenance, furniture delivery, work with refugees and community development.
St. Louis is a popular city for refugees from all over the world. Their size lends to the availability of a variety of services, yet they don’t just get lost in the crowd. Oasis has assisted refugees from over 45 countries, from Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Iran and Syria, to African countries such as Congo, Togo, Sudan and Liberia to the Southeast Asian country of Burma.
Part of our service throughout the week was to fill in where Oasis is lacking in staff. Different members acted as receptionists, one group cleaned a fish tank and others washed windows and picked up trash in a park.
Each one of our team members had the chance to go on a home delivery, where we brought furniture to a family who recently moved to the United States. These experiences differed each time: some were offered water for their service while others had the opportunity to sit down with the family and chat over very strong Middle Eastern coffee.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Oasis holds English classes. During these classes, most of our team helped with the necessary babysitting. The infants and toddlers were split into two different rooms. There were only a handful of regular volunteers so we were able to fill in the gaps. Some of the others had a chance to sit in on a few classes because they are training to teach English as a second language.
“One of the most powerful things for me was working with the toddlers in the nursery”, said junior leader Hannah Brouwer. “Seeing the children with different languages and skin colors all playing together and just being a community was really awesome.”
Oasis emphasizes relationship building as a top priority with every refugee that walks through their doors. On the first day, we were told if there are people in the waiting room, we were allowed to stop whatever we were doing to sit and talk with them. And we did just that.
“One lady I talked to showed me pictures of her family that she had left behind in Afghanistan,” said freshman Kim Marques. “When a man came up to help her with her postponed permit, her face contorted in fear and anguish.”
“I was rendered helpless; that is, all except to love her,” Marques said.
One of the key take ways that we all learned from this week was what love looks like. Oasis truly lives out the second greatest commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“The power of God’s love, reaching over cultural divides, language barriers, governmental options is what I experienced so strongly, and I am so grateful for the dear people both in my team and those estranged from their homelands who showed me how that really is all that matters,” Marques said.
And that, my friends, is what PLIA is about.