The sounds of percolating laughter echo through Milwaukee's Tiefenthaler Park, with boys playing and shouting out to their friends. They run and perform handstand flips from the spongy playground surface into soft sand.
Only two months before, in this same park, the atmosphere was somber. A 16-year-old boy shot a 27-year-old man on the basketball court. For all the wrong reasons, this Midwestern city made the news.
But Bryan Ingvaldson, 21, is making a few discoveries that almost never make headlines: Many in the inner cities take time for relationships. They value community. And they are open to having spiritual conversations.
Bryan is talking about Jesus with people in this park tonight and playing with the children. This is the college junior's second time living as a short-term missionary in Milwaukee. His five-beaded "Good News necklace" hangs around his neck as a reminder of the year before and how God changed him.
Before that first mission trip, Bryan had thought kids were a burden and never wanted to have children. He also didn't care about people in poverty. Then he spent eight weeks working on a summer mission trip with Here's Life Inner City, the compassionate urban ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. HLIC seeks to serve and mobilize the church to live out God's heart for the poor, so people can grow in Christ.
A Campus Crusade staff member who worked at Bryan's school, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, challenged Bryan to apply to the mission trip in Milwaukee.
"That was a big step for me—I thought that was something 'super Christians' do," says the biology/philosophy major. "I was not ready for it. God used me despite that, and He helped me see that my faith was not something that was just modeled by the guys in Duluth. There was a faith I could call my own."
HLIC adopts a holistic approach to ministry by seeking to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the people in the city. Short-term mission trips like the one Bryan participated in focus on evangelism training and spiritual growth.
"Our desire for the students is that they would develop a heart for the city and a vision for how God cares for the city," says Kara Atkinson, who serves with HLIC in Milwaukee.
One way to develop compassion for the people is to learn how they live. During a one-day "poverty simulation" event, Bryan and the others gain empathy for those struggling in Milwaukee. One in four people live in poverty here, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So the simulation includes "dumpster diving" for a valuable item, asking someone for a quarter and collecting cans. In the evening, the students go to a 100-year-old soup kitchen on Ninth Street.
Another way they help is by joining where God is already at work. On Tuesday afternoon, a few of the students drive to a counseling center to pray and help those in need. Sitting in a circle of chairs, Bryan and two fellow students join Darryl Seay, senior pastor of Liberty and Truth Ministries. They listen to one of the people being counseled.
Pastor Darryl asks the students to tell how they have been set free from their own personal addictions or problems, to encourage those being counseled. One woman talks to herself and proclaims the truth of Scripture and then almost instantly shouts, "No, Jesus doesn't love me." Pastor Darryl and the students pray for her, and her countenance changes.
It's Wednesday of the second week. Bryan's six-member team cannot go to the counseling center today because Tuesday's rain flooded the basement. Instead, they help sort clothes to be given to those in need. As an inner-city church, Liberty and Truth Ministries meets physical needs in the community with a food pantry and a clothes closet.
A former Cabela's shoe salesman, Bryan matches donated shoes in pairs and makes repairs. Bryan's piercing-blue eyes later focus intently as he holds his favorite tool—silver Leatherman pliers. The pliers' jaws reattach a metal clasp on a broken purse strap.
Several times each week, the group pairs off and goes into Milwaukee—self billed as the "Great American City"—to talk about Jesus.
During an afternoon evangelism outing, Bryan goes with Campus Crusade staff member David Urquhart to the crest of Lynden Hill Park. They approach three young men. "Do you live in the neighborhood?" David asks, referring to Midtown. The conversation moves to why they come to the park: "To think," says the one named Delmonte, sitting on a large rock in the park's natural amphitheater.
The young men talk about their dreams and their heroes. Delmonte dreams of being a rapper like Jay–Z. The one called Tony wears a brown jacket with the phrase "Pain and Anguish" written on the back. He has dreams of becoming a boxer.
The conversation turns to spiritual things. Bryan watches David pull out an evangelistic booklet called Would You Like to Know God Personally? He begins to explain how God wants a relationship with us through Jesus. Delmonte shows interest: "Do you have an extra booklet?" he asks.
Bryan hands him one and explains more: "Page six breaks down some principles about what the Bible says about God."
Holding the booklet, Bryan asks the three young men a question about who controls their life—Jesus or self? Bryan remembers his life before Jesus. He lived for himself. He worked really hard, got very good grades. But then he would spend his free time doing drugs and drinking.
He thought he had to clean up all his addictions before Jesus would accept him. Then a Christian friend asked him to listen to a sermon on an iPod.
"I realized drugs, alcohol, sexual sin, pleasing people and my desires to succeed were all things that I was worshiping and enslaved to," he says. "I knew the only way that I was going to be free was if I worshiped Jesus."
Bryan desires that these young men at the rock circle would know and worship Jesus. He explains to them more about Jesus' forgiveness.
He shows them a diagram about Jesus' sacrifice for our sins. "He forgives all of them," he says. "This is the hope God gives us." An emergency vehicle's siren screams as it races down a nearby street.
This afternoon, no one places faith in Christ. As the young men stand up to leave, Delmonte keeps the booklet. Bryan notes the men's names so he can remember to pray for them. Yet by the end of the summer, four teenagers will have indicated they have placed their faith in Christ with Bryan—a first for him.
On a Tuesday evening, Bryan stands up to worship with his 16 fellow short-term missionaries. They sing,
"You're the God of this city.
You're the King of these people.
You're the Lord of this nation."
They think about their summer mission in Milwaukee.
Later, they sing another song describing the responsibility of a changed life in Christ: "We have been changed to bring change, to bring change."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
>God wanted Bryan to take a step of faith. Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please God" (New International Version). What faith step does God want you to take?