Her nervous hands carefully sort through the clothes rack full of hand-me-downs at The Salvation Army. The forecasted temperature in Ohio tonight is supposed to be -18 degrees. She clutches the only money she has—a mere five dollars to her name. The debate rages in her mind: warmth for her body or food for her belly? A coat for her arms, or a cracker for her gut? Desperation begins to pulse through her veins.
Only one night ago, she was clothed head-to-toe in her luxurious North Face winter gear. A hot meal, prepared by another, was served to her while she sat in the warm cafeteria surrounded by her peers who made her feel comfortable and accepted. Her private, Christian college education was going smashingly. Her brain was over-flowing with theological formulas, biblical knowledge and a toolbox of religious self-help tips to last her a lifetime.
But now, twenty-four hours later, every familiar signpost and comfort in her life has been stripped away. She is completely out of control—a new sensation for a girl who has always maintained a neatly planned and organized middle-class life. She has no idea what’s next. And the most surprising thing is, she chose this. She chose to be in poverty, at least for the weekend.
It Started With an Idea
Dr. Jeff Cook sits on the edge of classroom desk at a private Christian college in Ohio. He speaks to his students as if he is one of them. His gentle voice echoes through the classroom, where you can hear a pin drop between the rows of mesmerized students. He has captivated his audience not by dissecting the liturgical writings of the saints who have gone before (although he very much appreciates liturgical readings), but he holds their attention by humbly presenting his heart.
“As followers of Jesus, we are particularly concerned for those most at risk and on the margins in our society; the poor, marginalized, immigrants, refugees,” he tells his students with urgency in his voice. “As long as people remain statistics, it is easy even for Christians to look the other way and remain untouched. When we choose to enter into their worlds, however, they become real people with faces, names, families and needs.”
Dr. Cook says it did not take long for him to become a strong proponent of experiential learning once he took a position as a professor at the collegiate level.
“I found people could only absorb so much information. I could talk about poverty, teach about poverty and even give a biblical framework for why we should minister to those in poverty, yet big chunks of understanding would remain missing,” he explains.
It was with this deeply rooted passion for experiential learning that Dr. Cook began to take his students on a poverty immersion experience.
Taking a (Dumpster) Dive
Eighteen years ago, Dr. Cook chose to the narrow the distance between his suburban middle-class, privately educated students and the poverty-stricken urban areas just miles from the university. His desire is for his students to take the cerebral content taught in his urban ministry course and combine it with the real, life-on-life experience, praying it will seep into their spiritual DNA, changing them forever.
And so, for 48 hours, Friday night to Sunday night, Dr. Cook very intentionally and very strategically takes a group of students to the inner city, and through experiential learning, introduces them to the desperation and despair of poverty. Students are immersed into the unknown trappings of poverty and exposed to a world they didn’t even know existed.
His voice smiles across the phone lines as he describes the experience: “On Friday, they show up absolutely terrified, but by Sunday they are begging to stay! It is amazing what can happen in 48 hours!”
At the beginning of the weekend, students are stripped of all their things and given five dollars to go buy clothes at the local Salvation Army—clothes to last them the entire weekend. At night they sleep outside on the streets regardless of weather conditions. They have to beg, borrow and scrounge to come up with something to eat. They walk mile after mile hoping a food bank or soup pantry might be open to serve them. They talk to, pray with, eat with and hang out with prostitutes, drug dealers, pimps and homeless families.
And every encounter breaks down stereotypes, replacing each with a story—a soul.
Throughout the entire weekend, Dr. Cook is present to debrief and process with the students as they briefly lived a life they have never lived before.
“Would you believe, after just 24 hours of living like the homeless, middle-class suburban kids would be digging through dumpsters for food?” He laughs and continues, “I would have never believed it until I saw it with my own eyes time and time again.”
These dumpster-diving moments alter the hearts and minds of these students forever. Students like Justin.
“The first night on the streets, I was constantly waking up at the slightest noise,” said Justin. “Between the noise and the cold, I didn’t sleep the entire weekend. I would open my eyes every couple of hours to see if the sun was rising yet. I found myself waiting for the sun to rise. It became my source of hope.”
Maybe It’s Time
Jean Vanier, a Canadian philosopher and humanitarian, once said, “People may come to our community because they want to serve the poor; they will only stay once they have discovered that they themselves are the poor.”
Reflecting on this quote, Dr. Cook says, “Until you recognize your own poverty, you will minister with a messiah complex among the poor, and you will be the last to recognize it or believe it.”
We are all broken, poor and needy.
Maybe it is time to lay our warm, comfortable clothing of ignorance down and immerse ourselves until our hearts bleed with compassion. After walking thousands of students through the poverty immersion experience, Dr. Cook concludes, “You can’t solve a problem you don’t understand, and you can’t understand from a distance.”
Dr. Cook and his wife, Inge, now reside in Denver, Colorado ministering full-time with CrossPurpose Center For Urban Leadership.