“I saw Jesus in unexpected ways … in the ways He’s sanctifying race, ethnicity and calling all people to Himself,” senior Michael Contreras said, reflecting on his time spent in Xela, Guatemala in the summer of 2017. “The sovereignty of God and how God does not desire his people to suffer was really made real,” he continued, crediting these and other revelations to his time with Global Urban Perspectives (GUP), one of Wheaton’s summer ministry programs. Contreras recognized that serving in an urban context was not always easy, but it was always humbling.
He admired the people he met through Inner- CHANGE who lived in Guatemala full-time, saying, “It gave me hope that the church can do good work … seeing an actual manifestation of people living a life of justice … that wasn’t adorned in any way by the world,” he said.
This is exactly the kind of attitude that this year’s GUP cabinet is trying to promote both within GUP and Wheaton’s campus community GUP was founded in 2001 by the former Office of Christian Outreach (OCO) Assistant Director, Dante Upshaw, who envisioned it as a ministry “committed to mobilizing our campus community to be bridges to the cities of the world.” It was born out of the disbandment of National City Ministry, an outreach opportunity offered by Wheaton that lost momentum. “We couldn’t allow the city to be neglected,” Upshaw told the Record in a phone interview. As a result, the OCO hatched a new idea that would aim to not just focus on the urban cities in America, but “realize that [problems in] urban neighborhoods were a global issue,” according to Upshaw.
Ultimately, GUP was designed to expose Wheaton students to a broader range of global urban issues and give them “a different view of God’s heart for cities around the world.” GUP continues, 17 years later, to foster an environment where students can “learn well, listen deeply and see the gospel with an emphasis on social justice and urban issues,” according to Cabinet Administrator senior Emily Barbosa. When asked what GUP was hoping to accomplish in the upcoming year, Barbosa said, “[We are] trying to be a more present force on campus.” Junior Kayla Hurst, GUP orientation coordinator, echoed this hope, expressing a desire to “not only [emphasize] that our focus is primarily on urban issues, [but also] understanding issues of race and poverty and planning some events throughout the year that correlate with that.”
GUP is often overlooked in the flurry to sign up for more popular student ministry opportunities. Students either don’t know about GUP or have the wrong idea about the programs GUP offers. Last year, only two students applied for GUP. Even Barbosa herself said she had a different impression of GUP before joining the cabinet this year. “I didn’t know that there was anything that happened on campus [associated with GUP], and I don’t think I realized how much of an educational experience it is,” Barbosa said. She talked about GUP’s ongoing educational programming focused around race, urban issues and social justice that GUP sponsors during the year. “I had the perception that it was just ‘you go and help people’ but it’s a lot deeper and more respectful than that,” Barbosa said.
In attempting to find their voice in the conversation on campus, GUP’s cabinet has made it their mission to differentiate themselves from other summer ministries at Wheaton.
GUP is often associated with Youth Hostel Ministry (YHM) and Student Ministry Project (SMP), two groups that offer unique experiences of their own. According to GUP members, this tends to cause confusion and misconceptions about the structure and goals of GUP.
All student summer ministry programs stretch from six to 10 weeks during the summer, are largely service-based and well known for sending students to unfamiliar locations throughout the globe, but Barbosa pointed out a few key areas in which GUP differs from other summer ministries. “All of GUP is internship-based, while not all of SMP is internship-based,” she clarified. “GUP focuses on urban issues and social justice events … the events on campus [are] throughout the semester, not just over the summer.”
Additionally, Cabinet Chair junior Anna Horton specified GUP’s emphasis on learning that sets it apart from other programs. “All of our partners have an experiential learning framework … they already have established this infrastructure to train and teach students about the intersectionality of urban issues,” Horton explained. “You’re going to be talking about race, poverty, sustainability, environmental issues, things like that,” she said.
These discussions on “hot-topic” issues aim to not only to help GUP students learn about these issues but also to integrate the larger Wheaton student body through events open to the public.
One such event is a lecture series co-sponsored by Solidarity Cabinet entitled, “Can You Talk About Race?” Horton explained that she felt this was a relevant conversation due to the increasing discourse on campus about race. “A lot of people think we need to talk about it more, some people think we need to talk about it less … [We] think we just need to talk about it well.” The series will feature lectures from professors in different departments sharing what their field of study has to offer in discussions about race, sharing their personal experiences with racial issues and participating in question and answer sessions with students.
While GUP hopes to stress the significance of learning about social justice, they also embrace a wide range of practical social justice endeavors, sending students to a variety of programs and urban environments in both international and domestic settings. It sponsors immersion internship programs in partnership with ministries in locations ranging from U.s. cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, to countries like Guatemala, Mexico and the Philippines. For instance, the Los Angeles and Chicago program, which works with Sunshine Gospel Ministry (the primary partners for Wheaton in Chicago), is mainly focused on youth urban ministry. Simpson, who spent his summer in Los Angeles with organization InnerCHANGE, described it as “transformational” and “a refreshing change from Wheaton.”
Similarly, junior Bethany Faulds referred to her time working with Denver Urban Semester in Colorado as “formational.” However, for many students, international GUP programs can be an intimidating prospect. Even so, members of GUP cabinet, past participants and founder Upshaw stressed the importance of moving past these constructed fears and putting yourself in situations that may not be ideal but will always be rewarding. Faulds recalled that before GUP, she “was terrified of cities,” but she credits her time with GUP for teaching her that “cities aren’t scary and God is just as much in the city as He is in the suburbs or in the country.” Junior Troy Simpson expressed a matching sentiment, saying that the most important thing he learned from his time with GUP was that “I don’t have to be afraid.” He reflected on the novelty of living in a new cultural context and the ways it tested him, but reported that the results of these trials are that “we don’t have to be [afraid] because God is with us. And that’s crazy!” “By considering GUP, [students] are not just doing a service to the world, but reminding the world that we want to learn from the most overlooked voices,” Contreras explained, “not just in the states, or in Guatemala, but everywhere.”
Hurst acknowledged the common anxiety about entering the unknown, but reiterated GUP’s goal of listening and learning, “regardless of how much you think you know about it. You don’t have to be an expert; you learn in the process.”
Ultimately, as Upshaw concluded, “It’s God’s heart that is really broken because of the division not just in society, but also in the church.” He recognized that when stepping into these communities and situations, “it’s thick, it’s heavy and oftentimes it will be uncomfortable,” but that GUP creates a “place for [students] to have the sweetest fellowship, to be challenged and to grow.” Upshaw hopes students at Wheaton will continue to seek to learn about and contribute to the urban ministries of the world with both openness and humility, whether that is through GUP or another summer ministry opportunity. Applications for GUP are due November 4.
The first installment of “Can You Talk About Race?” will be Oct. 27 with Dr. Cartagena.