Students Dive into Inner City Mission Work

Nov 05, 2002 03:00 AM EST

They came here to do some serious work, but they seemed to be having a lot of fun, too.

The 10 college students had squeezed into a van in Mobile, Ala., and bumped along Interstate 10 all the way to Houston.But on arriving, the group didn't head for the Galleria, the Richmond Strip, the nearest sports bar or even an educational outing at NASA.

Instead, they spent a chilly, wet weekend working at two homeless shelters and a food pantry.

The once-a-semester program, called Urban Plunge, is sponsored by Campus Ministries at the Baptist-affiliated University of Mobile and other donors. The six women and four men are students at the school.

The name Urban Plunge means that "we just kind of dive right in," explained Melia Rushing as she helped sack pinto beans in a storage pantry behind Joy Fellowship Center, 7629 Ave. F.

The beans will provide meals for elderly East End residents.

The junior from Mobile is taking her third Plunge, having also worked weekends in Atlanta and Birmingham. She is majoring in psychology and wants to be a children's counselor.

The program's name also is appropriate because, for some at least, the experience is a sort of baptism or immersion in the problems of the poor in big cities.

"Most of us are from rural or small-town settings, and for us it's a wake-up call," said the group's senior member, 27-year-old Joey Cochran of Lucedale, Miss. His college career was interrupted by military service, but he fits right in.

Asked his major, Cochran replied: "Jesus."

Technically, he added, it's religion. He wants to be a youth minister or pastor, having preached in churches since age 17. This is his fourth or fifth Urban Plunge, he says.

A 19-year-old nursing major named Tiffany from Selma, Ala., has served in a far needier and more exotic setting than Houston.

Her name is omitted because her father operates a hospital in a Middle Eastern country where she witnessed for her faith, or proselytized -- which the Islamic government forbids -- while assisting him during the summer.

"I'm giving my life to missionary work," she said.

On Saturday, the group helped prepare and serve breakfast for the women and children at Star of Hope Transitional Living Center, 6897 Ardmore in southeast Houston.

After cleaning up, they headed for Joy Fellowship, where they dug through boxes of donated clothing, sorting the garments for men and women, boys and girls, and placing them on hangers.

Later, there was an afternoon appointment at the Star of Hope Men's Shelter.

The agenda also included Sunday morning services at Garden Oaks Baptist Church before the group started the drive back -- which should be a bit easier than getting here.

"We got a little lost," admitted Rushing. "Your freeway system is a little more complicated than ours."

By Rad Sallee