In the American imagination, spring break is a time when college students shake the dust from their suitcases and head to some sun-drenched beach for a week-long party. For twenty eight Grove City College students, however, the destination this year isn’t Florida or the shade of a coastal cabana. Instead, these students are choosing to spend their break serving and learning alongside pastors who serve congregations in the rural areas and rust-belt towns surrounding Grove City.
Inner-City Outreach Goes Rural
Since 1998, hundreds of Grove City College students have opted to serve others over spring break week through weeklong student-planned and student-led mission trips. Because many of these early trips focused on urban areas, the trips became known as inner-city outreach (i.e., ICO) trips. These decades later, the label ICO missions still provides the umbrella term for Grove City's student-led mission trip, many of which continue to do meaningful work in urban areas across the country.
I’ve seen the power of these trips firsthand. When I was a sophomore at Grove City College, I participated in an ICO trip to Camden, New Jersey. I can still remember playing basketball with middle schoolers in the storefront mission’s afterschool program, trying my hand at sheetrock installation, and learning about the deep social and economic scars that marred Camden and set it apart from the affluent communities just a few miles down the road. We even took a day trip across the Delaware River to north Philly one afternoon and got an education in the impact of poverty and communal Christian living from the folks at Shane Claiborne’s The Simple Way. I can still remember walking the streets as we listened to their stories about planting grass in superfund sites by using super soakers.
In spite of the name, however, not all inner-city outreach trips are to the “inner-city” or even cities at all. In fact, over the years many have worked in smaller places, from communities around Grove City to Appalachia and villages beyond US boarders. In the past, these rural trips were largely the exception that highlighted the urban norm. This year, however, with the help of the Project on Rural Ministry (PRM), Grove City College students are choosing to highlight rural ministry with new intentionally by launching two new ICO trips to churches in the rural areas and small, rust-belt towns that surround the College.
PRM-ICOs Come Together
These PRM-ICO trips began as the brain-child of PRM executive director Seulgi Byun and chapel ministries director Zachary Pitcher. As the ongoing pandemic effectively sidelined much of the PRM’s normal activity through the spring and fall, Byun and Pitcher came together to image new ways that the PRM could come alongside pastors and build wider student engagement in rural ministry. A few Teams meetings later, and the PRM-ICO trips were born.
The concept was both innovative and simple: over the course of three years, the PRM will sponsor two trips a year so that a group of students will annually serve churches in two of the three PRM cohort regions (Appalachian, Rust-Belt, Agricultural). In the course of three years, pastors in each region will have an opportunity to partner with PRM-ICOs twice. For the first year, the PRM team and Pitcher decided to focus on the regions in closest geographical proximity simply because it made more sense on a logistical level to stay close to the College during this trial year.
Identifying Student Leaders
Deciding that a PRM-ICO trip would be both feasible and valuable was one thing, figuring out what students might best lead it was another. Together Pitcher and Byun drew on a list of former ICO trip leaders and individuals in the College’s Christian ministries major as they sought out students with a heart for ministering in the region surrounding Grove City. The pool of student leaders was rich, and it didn’t take long to identify four students whose passion for Christ and ministry made them great candidates to serve as co-leaders on each trip.
Leading the PRM-ICO trip to churches the Agricultural Region are Bailey Henson, a junior social work major from Butler, PA and Jake Santis, a biblical and religious studies and Christian ministries major who grew up in Fredrick, MD. For Henson, who describes herself as “not much of a city girl,” an opportunity to lead an ICO trip to the rural region she calls home is something she finds deeply appealing. For Santis, it’s the relational aspect of the trip that holds the most appeal. “Developing relationships in ministry have been one of the most influential parts of my own growth and I want to learn from these pastors and hear their stories and encourage and assist them in any way I can.”
The PRM-ICO trip to churches in the Rust-Belt Region is being led by Tadd Perkins, a junior biblical and religious studies and Christian ministry major from Seattle, WA and Gavin Eberlin, a sophomore biblical and religious studies and Christian ministries major from Erie, PA. For Perkins and Eberlin, the rural nature of the PRM-ICOs offer a chance to learn about the contours of ministry in a new context. It’s a learning opportunity both are embracing. Eberlin, who grew up worshipping in “a large, inner-citer, non-denominational church,” is looking forward “to learning the flow of rural churches and being stretched to serve them to the best of my ability.” What Perkins most appreciates about the trip is its pastor-centric focus. “I am excited for this trip because it is not a normal missions trip in that we are focusing on the pastors and learning from them.”
Taking the Posture of a Learner
It may be the posture of learning from and investing in local pastors that sets the PRM-ICO trips apart from a standard short-term mission trip and the project-oriented approach many trips take. It’s certainly an emphasis that Pitcher appreciates. “I often talk with leaders about helping people move from a doing/helping mentality to a learning/serving mentality.”
Pitcher also sees the PRM’s willingness to invest in ICOs to local pastors and their congregations as a helpful aid to leader training and a powerful opportunity to build long term relationships with local congregations. “I am very excited for the PRM trips because they will help us create a culture of learning and serving. The connection to the Project on Rural Ministry has provided our leaders with a great supply of resources and additional mentors who have helped them to learn about the challenges of rural ministry before the trip.” In addition to training and cultivating a posture of serving and learning, the geographical proximity of the churches connected to these trips matters, too. As Pitcher notes, each of these trips is “a great opportunity to challenge the students of our campus to serve the communities right around them” and thereby “help our students to see that they can serve the Lord right where he has placed them at Grove City College.”
To a large degree Pitcher’s hopes and the hopes of the PRM team and the ICO student leaders are already being realized even before the students go by the car load to churches in Franklin, Irwin, Jeannette and numerous communities in between.
As the students have reached out to pastors to begin planning out the week’s schedule they have already started to learn about the contours of rural ministry and to form relationships with some amazing pastors who are serving there. Reflecting on these interactions, Eberlin offers a meaningful glimpse into the potential of these trips both for service and learning. “The conversations with pastors have been incredibly powerful, hearing their stories, their hurts, and their hearts. The Lord has used all evil for good and has been working for His good in and through these pastors. For this trip, we have projects ranging from painting, cleaning, and technological tasks to preaching, worship, and running services. Most of all, we look forward to hearing and learning the hearts the pastors have for ministry in their context.”
It’s obvious that Eberlin and his fellow team leaders are off to a good start. We can’t wait to see what God does. Stay tuned in over the weeks ahead to find out how their week went.
Charlie Cotherman is program director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written on rural ministry, church planting, and history for a variety of publications including Christianity Today, Evangelicals, and Radix. He is the author of To Think Christianly: A History of L'Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement and a contributing editor of Sent to Flourish: Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches. He lives with his wife, four children, and a cat in Oil City, Pennsylvania.