Cru® Gap Year teammates Etsi Cox (left) and Hannah Sowatzke share a playful moment on the Springfield campus of Missouri State University. Etsi and Hannah and their four teammates, all high school graduates, spent the 2020–2021 school year investing in life and ministry with students on this campus, and a few others.

The God Who Bridges the Gap

Share

The buzz of chatter fills a cavernous food court. Wafting aromas of fried chicken, stir fry and coffee intermingle. Two young women, both recent high school graduates, linger at a table with a brown-sleeved deck of cards positioned between them. Emily Snodderly is a freshman at this university and the friend across from her, Dani Markham, crossed Emily’s path while on a very different journey during her first year out of high school.

Dani is one of six young adults selected for the 2020–2021 Cru® Gap Year program. The “gappers,” as they’re affectionately known, are part of a growing trend of high school graduates who take a structured break from formal education between high school and college. In Dani and her teammates’ case, the adventure involves more than the typical travel, self-discovery and exposure to different cultures offered by most gap year programs. It’s all that — and more.

A Unique Take on Gap Year

Like other gap year programs, Cru® Gap Year offers nine months of opportunities for personal growth and development. The hallmark of the Cru Gap Year, however, is a focus on spiritual growth, evangelism and discipleship training, and ministry experience that can equip a young person for a lifetime of loving and serving the Lord, wherever He might lead.

Under non-pandemic circumstances, Cru Gap Year teams serve in high school ministry overseas. The first team, in 2018, worked to establish high school outreach in Ecuador and Uganda. Because of coronavirus restrictions that began in 2020, Gap Year coordinators connected their gappers with college ministry teams in stateside locations rather than sending them overseas.

During this particular Cru Gap Year, Dani and her team are meeting critical ministry needs in the United States. In the process, God has been revealing Himself as the true “God who bridges the gaps,” supplying abundant growth and providing for needs that sometimes aren’t as noticeable.

Gap Year students (from left) Gabriel Schwep, Etsi Cox, Hannah Sowatzke, Dani Markham, Irina Aleeva and Sully Johnson (not pictured) faced challenges of independent living. They developed skills, such as cooking and practicing hospitality on a limited budget.

God moves mountains in Montana

A sapphire sky collided with sun-baked foothills rising from the vast Montana valley that served as the landing pad for this year’s Gap team. In September 2020, Missoula, Montana, was open for in-person ministry, observing Cru safety guidelines, as coronavirus numbers were lower there than in many other places. Organizers had planned orientation and developmental training for the Gap Year team. The team members learned how to share their faith and jump into evangelism at the University of Montana alongside Cru staff members Bob and Deanne Reid.

Dani and her new friends were excited and nervous about the challenges ahead.

But the difficulties weren’t the anticipated ones of overcoming fears to initiate spiritual conversations with strangers. Just a week after the team emerged from travel-required quarantine, in-person ministry halted at the University of Montana due to an increase in COVID-19 cases in the region. The team also began experiencing conflict and tension as all six young people navigated challenges related to living away from home for the first time.

In response, Bob and Deanne shifted to meet these emotional and relational needs through facilitating programs from their Cru Lifelines training while balancing other demands of their campus ministry at UM. Meanwhile, Bob depended on dialysis as he waited for a kidney transplant, which God provided in November.

“I had virtually no capacity. But the cool thing about that is when you can’t rely on your own energy or your capacity, you find that you have to rely on God.”

Bob Reid

So trusting in God, Bob and Deanne persevered and reached out for help from student leaders involved with Cru at UM.

As these college students facilitated many of the regular activities normally managed by Bob and Deanne, they gained confidence leading Bible studies and helping their fellow students grow spiritually. Though limited by coronavirus restrictions, the gappers also eagerly jumped into their experience, grabbing coffee with UM students, helping with small-scale campus outreaches and a fall retreat, and participating in Bible studies.

Etsi (left) and Dani chat over laundry during a busy week. While some college-bound young adults have never done their own laundry, these gappers — and their favorite t-shirts — are prepared for the loads of laundry ahead.

Although the Reids were exhausted by the end of the semester, the Cru Gap Year team had boosted the Cru campus ministry team morale with their enthusiasm and eagerness to follow God’s leading into difficult places. The gappers also grew individually and as a team.

“The students who left here in December were not the same ones who arrived in September,” says Bob.

The Gap Year team departed from Montana before Christmas with a new set of relational skills, self-awareness, a stronger team and a love for God, which would prove essential for the next stage of their gap year adventure.

Plan B is God’s Plan A: Springfield, Missouri

People and suitcases are piled into a minivan for the hour-and-a-half drive from the airport in Joplin, Missouri, to Springfield. It’s January 2021, the team has left Montana. Once again, ongoing coronavirus restrictions grounded the Cru Gap Year team’s hopes of traveling overseas. But when living through a pandemic, it’s a choice to either get frustrated or remain flexible.

Each member of the team applied for Cru Gap Year because they sensed God calling them to it. Each one wanted to learn, grow and follow Jesus Christ wherever He might lead this year. And so Missouri it is.

After introducing the gappers to the Southern Missouri Cru campus team at a welcome party, team leader Danny Goeking and the rest of his team wasted no time getting to work. Dani and her new ministry coach, intern Jordan McKenzie, headed to Missouri State University’s Springfield campus.

The hustle and bustle of campus life resumed in August 2020, as Missouri State University faculty, staff and students returned following spring closures due to COVID-19.

As they step into the cafeteria at the Plaster Student Union building, Jordan scans the room for someone to approach with a “Key Volunteer Challenge.” Jordan motions to a young woman sitting alone. Dani’s stomach tightens as they approach. The gap between her experience and what she’s being challenged to do feels insurmountable.

Finding a Leader in a Haystack

At large universities like Missouri State, finding and mobilizing Christian students poses a significant challenge. Many Cru campus ministry teams use a series of questions called the Key Volunteer Challenge to invite Christ-following students to invest in their campuses by becoming ministry leaders.

In two months, the gappers approached over 100 students and challenged two dozen to get involved in Christian ministry on the local campuses of Missouri State University, Ozarks Technical Community College and Drury University.

“Hey, I’m Jordan and this is Dani,” Jordan says boldly from behind her mask. “We’re with the campus ministry called Cru. We’re looking for leaders who are passionate about Jesus and want to share their faith with others. Does that describe you?” The grip on Dani’s stomach eases as Emily Snodderly listens to them and responds intently. She is passionate about Jesus and does want to learn to share her faith.

They swap numbers, and a week later, Dani and teammate Irina Aleeva meet Emily again in the same place. This time the young women teach Emily how to use Perspective Cards, an evangelism tool that opens up conversation about how people view the world. The deck includes the Christian perspective about the nature of God, the meaning and purpose of life, the identity of Jesus and the source of spiritual truth.

After meeting up a few more times, Dani hands a set of Perspective Cards over to Emily. And just like that, the trainee becomes the trainer.

Gappers (from left) Etsi, Dani and Gabriel (right), along with Etsi’s sister, Corelle Cox (second from right), make their way around Springfield, Missouri, on foot. They enjoy a slice of pizza along the way.

“When I first started following up with [Emily] I was not super comfortable sharing the gospel with people, but here I am teaching someone else to do it,” says Dani.

During their first two months in Missouri, the gappers initiated over 100 spiritual conversations with college students. Their enthusiasm and commitment also infused the existing team with fresh energy and a renewed vision for ministry.

Cru® Gap Year students Hannah Sowatzke and Sully Johnson share Perspective Cards® with three international students at Missouri State University.

It’s that willingness to initiate, prompted by and in the power of the Holy Spirit, that led Dani’s roommate and fellow gapper Esther “Etsi” Cox to share her faith with Oscar Angel, Jr., a student at Ozarks Technical Community College.

That very first week in Missouri, Etsi waited for her team leader to finish helping another teammate when she noticed a student sitting alone. She felt like she was supposed to talk to him.

“Hey,” she said. “Would you do this survey with me?”

Sitting down across from Oscar, she asked unusually probing questions for a lunchroom conversation between strangers. Mid-conversation, Oscar stopped her and asked, “Why are you talking to me?”

“I feel like God told me to,” Etsi said.

“What do you mean ‘God told you to?’”

Oscar questioned her further, wanting to know what it was like to have a relationship with God. He wanted to hear what it was like to talk to God, so Etsi prayed with him.

In the following weeks, Etsi and Oscar met at The Potter’s House, a local coffee shop. As they talked more, Etsi saw that he wanted this relationship with God but something was holding him back. She showed him a Bible app. He downloaded it. The next time they met, they began reading the book of Matthew together. Oscar texted her later asking where they’d left off so he could continue reading on his own.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow

From their rocky Montana beginning to the expansive ministry they’re now exploring in Missouri, the 2020–2021 Cru Gap Year team has experienced spectacular glimpses into how God enters into the gaps of our human experience. The gappers filled a critical need for laborers on the campuses in Montana and Missouri. Leaders in both places expressed that adding six workers to their teams provided a significant lift to their ministries.

Danny Goeking realizes that college-age students offer something unique. “They’re insiders, and that really helps,” Danny says.

Cru® Southwest Missouri campus staff members and gappers gather in Danny and Nicole Goeking’s basement for Monday morning “Team Time.”

The gappers’ work has been exhausting, demanding and purposeful. As they spent full days on campus three to four days a week, they also learned how to rest well in the Lord. For Etsi, this looks like rising early to pray and read her Bible. For Dani, it’s spending an afternoon in a hammock with her Bible and allowing herself space to talk to and listen to God.

God has also used the experience to clarify future direction for the young adults. At the beginning of the gap year, Etsi had vague plans of going to college afterward. But she’s now exploring other options that don’t involve college.

“I’m just growing so much in knowing Him: who He is, who I am to Him, His plans for me. This gap year has stretched and grown me and prepared me so much for whatever the next phase of my life will be.”

Etsi Cox

And Dani, who had a set plan of following her gap year with college and a nursing career, now dreams of serving God on the mission field.

Though this Cru Gap Year looked different from its original design, team leaders and the gappers agree that it’s been a transformative experience. God bridged, mended and filled gaps of all sorts. Most importantly, He used the gappers and the Cru campus staff teams that welcomed them to further His work of closing the gap between people and Himself.

Your Next Adventure

Explore Cru® Gap Year for yourself or a loved one, and apply online.

Learn More
Melissa Long
Words by

Melissa Long

Melissa Long serves as a writer for Cru®. As a native of Lookout Mountain, Georgia, Melissa appreciates the deep quiet of forested mountains. She currently resides on the edge of a wooded swamp in Florida with her husband, two kids and a devoted but somewhat deranged cat named Maple.

Contact Me
Ted Wilcox
Photos by

Ted Wilcox

Ted loves zigzagging the globe, capturing photos and stories of what God is doing. Originally from California, he serves as a missionary photojournalist with Cru® in Orlando, Florida. Ted also ministers to international scholars who come to Orlando to study.

Contact Me

Share

Read more from the September 2021 issue

Video Intro

How a Single Instagram Post Impacted Two Lives

Student leader Hannah Koehler learned firsthand the value of perseverance in the face of discouragement, and in the process saw God offer a new friend new life.

September 2021

Get email updates

Subscribe now to receive Cru Storylines™ in your inbox.

Subscribe now