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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Urban servants

Lutheran volunteer program reaches Denver’s down and out

Urban Servant Corps is a one-year, full-time Lutheran volunteer program in Denver. Seeking “to fulfill Christ’s mission of love,” as its mission statement reads, volunteers live in community with each other while working at nonprofits that serve low-income and at-risk populations. 

Founded in 1987 by Lutheran pastors Nelson and Bonita Bock, Urban Servant Corps began as a ministry of Avondale Lutheran Church. The program has given a total of 712,000 volunteer hours (equal to $10.6 million at an hourly wage of $15). It provides 18 volunteers a year with food, housing, health insurance and a monthly stipend.

Participants who complete their service can receive an Americorps Education Award to pay off $5,500 of education loans or to help pay for graduate school or seminary. 

This is one of several ELCA-related volunteer programs, including Young Adults in Global MissionLutheran Volunteer CorpsALT-Year; and Border Servant Corps (founded by an Urban Servant Corps alumna, Dot Quaintance).

In this article, three volunteers reflect on their Urban Servant Corps experiences.

Good morning; whatever 

By Lacey Joseph

I wake to the dark still dampening my room and creep out of bed. Before long I start the cold car, turn on the radio and let my coffee sizzle. When I arrive at the building, I mutter, “You can do this,” and walk in confidently. Some youth who are already awake (they need to be off-property by 7 a.m.) glare as I walk by. With a warm smile and most of my might, I say, “Good morning.” 

“Whatever,” most respond. A few reciprocate with, “Hmm.” 

First I visit the office for “crossover,” the sharing between night and morning staff of any drama that has occurred among the troubled youth. Then I venture into the rank-smelling dorms to wake the remaining sleepers. There isn’t a name I haven’t been called for simply waking them up. They slowly get out of bed, eat and complain about breakfast, and get ready for the day.

These 15- to 20-year-olds are clients of Urban Peak, a Denver shelter for homeless youth. I’m an Urban Servant Corps member, placed here for my volunteer year as a direct care counselor. Urban Peak is one of several nonprofit agencies that partner with Urban Servant Corps. 

Almost 930 youth are homeless in Denver. Nearly all of those at Urban Peak have experienced trauma in their lives, whether it be emotional, physical or sexual abuse, recovering from drug addiction, suffering from a mental health concern, or having been asked to leave their homes. We try to lead them to resources that will help better their lives.

Some mornings I wonder what I’m doing here, but a few youth remind me. 

“You are my favorite staff,” Mina (client names changed for confidentiality) tells me in the morning. “I’m so glad you’re here.” 

Chris cuts daily to try to feel something, anything other than the urge to use drugs to distract from a lifetime of pain. He has locked himself in the linen closet. I reach out and Chris settles down to talk. I just listen. “Thank you for saving my life today,” he said.  

Tina is trying to get away from prostitution. She pulls me into my office and asks for some juice and a restriction so she can’t leave the property and doesn’t have to go out into the world. After listening and explaining that she doesn’t have to live this life, she weeps and agrees. I look up ways to get her home to Minnesota. She gets a ticket and is gone in three days. 

Joe sees people who aren’t there and can hear God telling him to complete tasks. I help Joe set up a mental health evaluation and find other resources. 

Danielle, who was kicked out by her caregivers because they didn’t accept her as transgender, is forced to fend for herself on the streets. We let her stay in the shelter’s private alternative room. We listen to her story, reassuring her that she is safe from discrimination and judgment. She recently earned her GED diploma and is moving toward housing. 

Various obstacles stand in the way of success for these youth. I thank God every day for placing me in a position to help them, even in small ways. We are doing something big here. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.


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