Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church

Spring break spent in service: Why?


A makeshift sign indicates where help may be found in Joplin, Mo. From left, the team of students and staff from OCU: (back row) Will Ruffin, Trey Witzel, Spencer Moore, Grace Karber, Leslie Long, Leigh Smith, Keith Bethell, Staci Tinsley; (middle) Sophia Kang, Sarah Poteet, Raquel Valadez; (at front) Stormy Vandeplas, Mary Beth Nelson, and Evangeline Vournazos.

"Why do you do this?" That was the question asked by Kent Ogle, host of the KFOR-TV morning show in Oklahoma City, when he met OCU students Keith Bethell and Trey Witzel. At the TV studio, Ogle was interviewing the pair about their upcoming spring break trip to Joplin, Mo., to help those suffering after devastating tornadoes there in May 2011.

"It’s because of our faith," they responded. "Every spring break we try to step outside of ourselves and help others. That’s what our Christian faith is about."

"Why do you do this?" was also asked by reporters for Channel 4 in Joplin and The Oklahoman newspaper. They seemed fascinated that college students would choose to spend their school break helping others.

For the team of 15 OCU students and staff who made the trip to Joplin, the answer seemed obvious. They had an opportunity to express and to enliven their faith.

Spring break traditionally is seen as a time to escape the pressures and deadlines of a demanding university schedule, to regain energy for the final push of the academic year. Witzel agreed with that view, but he described a spring-break mission as "a different kind of recharging."

Jennifer Long, director of Religious Life at OCU, had told the students, "It’s really important we don’t get so focused on our own lives that we forget we’re part of a whole. That’s easy to forget as a student because (college is) all about you and your future."

The team had made plans to work with AmeriCorps in Joplin. But when rain interrupted those plans, they remembered the Volunteers In Mission motto: "Be flexible." They shifted to help a crisis center staff sort boxes of clothes and other donated items. They also assisted an elderly couple making their third move from a flooded home to a newer apartment complex beside a temporary hospital.

OCU religion major and Bishop’s Scholar Leigh Smith was amazed at Joplin’s landscape; she said it still is easy to tell exactly which areas were hit hardest by the tornado. Beside an intact building would be one clearly awaiting demolition. For two days the OCU volunteers cleared debris from a field with a direct view of the destroyed St. John’s/Mercy Hospital. The students said it was eerie to see a place of healing so badly damaged.

In addition to offering help, the team enjoyed working with other student groups serving in Joplin on their spring breaks. One day they joined youths from Norman-Bridgeview and OKC-St. Luke’s churches to form a chain of people clearing debris on a lot.

Each evening the OCU group gathered to eat and reflect on the day, Bethell said. "Each night we shared a God-sighting, some time during the day when we saw God’s active presence. It helped us be grateful and remember that, in the midst of such destruction, God is with us."


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