By Danielle Waddell
Special to The Alabama Baptist
A team of 14 Alabama college students recently returned home from a summer spent learning to live out God’s mission through everyday life.
The students — mostly strangers connected through One Mission Students — met for the first time in March but in a matter of months their lives would be interwoven after weeks serving God together in the 100-plus degree days in Phoenix.
Their opportunity came through GenSend, a product of the Cooperative Program that commissions college students to explore the world of church planting through a North American Mission Board-organized experience. The Alabama students were among nearly 200 students who served 15 cities in the U.S.
Through the GenSend program, students work with newly planted churches to more effectively reach their respective communities or, in the case of the Alabama GenSend team, engage an under-churched area in which there is potential to plant a church in the future. This was the first year Phoenix participated in the GenSend experience. Leaders in the area focused efforts on residents of the Encanto area.
The Alabama team ranged in age from rising sophomores to a recent college graduate. They worked to share the gospel by building relationships through time spent in coffee shops, interactions at the gym, conversations on the light rail and prayerful encounters in parks.
“As we went throughout the day, it was really simple, we just made the extra effort to not ignore the person next to us on the bus or the people we interacted with during the day,” team member Laurel Tolbert said.
“It’s about caring about people and pushing yourself to embrace the awkwardness of talking to a stranger because once that conversation has started it really is fun to talk and meet new people and hear about their life.”
Encanto seemed to be made up of people desperate for deep, Christ-centered community, team members determined. Churches are there but a true gospel presence is rare within those buildings, the group said, noting they believed many church leaders withheld the truth of how to access the community they sought through Christ and His Church.
“It was heartbreaking to be in a place that truly doesn’t have community,” team member Becca Shipman said. “My heart broke for those people because they don’t even know what true community looks like, and they are in desperate need of the truth to be preached to them.”
Longing for community
Recognizing Encanto’s longing for community, GenSend Phoenix set out to begin the process of fostering a place with a sense of belonging.
Through interviewing business owners, first responders and educators in the area, the team gained valuable knowledge about what it would look like for a future church to actively engage with and reach the community.
Once information had been gathered, the students orchestrated a community event — Party in the Park — to pass out waters, distribute free hot dogs, play a few games of kickball and interact with the park’s visitors, one of whom the team had met beforehand and invited to the event.
“We started conversing with our Uber driver,” team member Cass McIntyre said.
“It was just small talk at first, but then we got into deeper topics. He basically asked about fighting sin and how a person can keep a smile on their face every day. We got to share about surrender to Jesus and who He is. The gospel was shared and seeds were planted.”
The students saw Jesus and His mission in an entirely new light as they witnessed Encanto’s yearning for truth and community, experienced differences in the area’s churches and noticed their own mindsets on Christian culture expand.
It was not simply an answer to a call to spend a summer on mission in Phoenix — the students allowed their summer on mission to transform the way they view Christ, His Church and the way they interact with the world around them. It was an encounter with an eternal impact, they said.
GenSend Phoenix team from Alabama
• Danielle Waddell, University of Alabama — First Baptist Church, Attalla
• Becca Shipman, University of South Alabama — Dauphin Way Baptist Church, Mobile
• Alexis Alvarez, Jeff State Community College — New Hope Baptist Church, Pell City
• Cass McIntyre, University of South Alabama — First Baptist Church, Butler
• Kathleen Cater, University of North Alabama — Harmony Baptist Church, Moulton
• Laurel Tolbert, Auburn University — Liberty Baptist Church, Chelsea
• Caleb Howell, Jacksonville State University — Greenbrier Road Baptist Church, Anniston
• Lindsey McCarty, University of South Alabama — Sonrise Baptist Church, Mobile
• Noah Grayhek, University of South Alabama — Sonrise Baptist Church, Mobile
• Brandon Dunn, University of Alabama — Shoal Creek Baptist Church, Decatur
• Charlee Anderson, University of North Alabama — First Bible Church of Decatur
• Jacob Runyan, Auburn University — Jasper’s First Baptist Church
• Hannah Williams, University of North Alabama alumna — Ridgecrest Baptist Church, Montgomery
• Justin Hicks, Auburn University — Eastern Hills Baptist Church, Montgomery