Skip to content ↓

Students plunge into inner-city volunteer work

Sophomore Sandra Yu at the Ruggles Orange Line subway stop.
Sophomore Sandra Yu at the Ruggles Orange Line subway stop.
Three Urban Plunge participants from MIT explore the city's streets.
Three Urban Plunge participants from MIT explore the city's streets.

Students who participated in the third annual Urban Plunge during spring break returned to campus with a new perspective on city life and a renewed faith in social change.

Participants in the week of hands-on urban ministry designed by the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) helped out in after-school programs in Dorchester and Chinatown; handed out food, blankets and clothes to homeless people; and slept at Roxbury's Leon de Judah Church.

"It was an awesome opportunity to get to know Boston and the situation of the urban poor. Urban Plunge opened my eyes to a world that doesn't involve p-sets and doing well on tests. It helped me grow and see that as a person of privilege, I have an obligation," said freshman Joshua Li.

"Things change when you see the faces and homes of people you might otherwise avoid," said Aaron Wippold, a junior in biology. "Since my first Urban Plunge in freshman year, I've felt it my responsibility as a Christian and resident of Boston to work towards undoing wrongs done to the urban poor and minorities."

This year's Urban Plunge kicked off with an Urban Dip--a scavenger hunt in two low-income Boston neighborhoods: Dorchester's Codman Square and Roxbury's Grove Hall.
"Urban Dips are great. You start out with the name of a neighborhood and a list of things to do when you're there. You have to ask strangers for directions. This is awkward at first, but people are accommodating and kind to those who are lost," said Wippold, a native of Missouri.

"Urban Dips also serve to familiarize us with the Boston mass transit system. I now feel comfortable going to Dudley station, getting a transfer, hopping on the number 28 bus to Mattapan and grabbing a tasty Caribbean meal at Ali's Roti. The eateries in Dorchester are fantastic. For $5 I had a delicious meal at Keith's Place," said Wippold.

Wippold and Li found the nighttime outreach to the homeless--the weekly Starlight Homeless Ministry--most challenging. Starlight Ministries serves the homeless in Boston and Cambridge who don't sleep in shelters.

"I came into the evening with a view that homeless people were dirty, jobless, mentally ill or lazy," Wippold said. "Ten minutes later, I was talking with a man who had attended B.U. but dropped out because he couldn't afford tuition. He was a little scruffy, but so am I ... He encouraged me to stick with my classes, no matter what happened. I prayed with him and invited him to the service that proceeded."

At the Starlight service, Wippold said, he saw "people who had hit rock bottom worshiping God with a joy that I've never seen before. How is it that one can be happy even in the worst circumstance? I can only answer that they had a strong faith that God was caring for them no matter what. Witnessing this trust made me confront my own doubts as a Christian ... Could I be as faithful to God in a similar circumstance? What if my family, health and wealth were all taken from me? What if I had to fear beatings, addictions, exposure and hunger? I left with mixed emotions and many questions."

An evening Monopoly-style game at Leon de Judah gave Urban Plunge participants a sense of economic inequality and its impact on individual lives. In this game, an arbitrary class division gave some players $50 and some $300 for passing "Go."

Wippold got the $300 ELITE role and found himself "disturbed at how easily I could get caught up in my hotel-building and money-collecting, while my destitute friends had to take loans out of the bank just to remain in the game. In this way, I could see urban issues like gentrification in a new light," he said.

Urban Plunge was both exhilarating and sobering, Wippold and Li said, and both thought the MIT community would benefit if such an experience were the basis of a required course. The experience "challenged and nourished" Li's faith, he said, and gave him a vision of using the privilege of his MIT education to help others.

"The Urban Plunge looks at a Christian perspective and response towards poverty and race relations. Alternative spring breaks and other volunteer opportunities could afford the same community-building experience. As students in Boston, we can effect change," Wippold said.

Urban Plunge 2004 was sponsored by the Black Christian Fellowship, the Undergraduate Association Finance Board, the United Christian Fellowship, the MIT Asian Christian Fellowship, IVCF New England, Congregacion Leon de Juda, Starlight Homeless Ministries and the Christian Fellowships at Tufts University.

For more information, contact Peter Kim at

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 7, 2004.

Related Topics

More MIT News

The book cover has bright yellow lights like fireflies, and says, “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science; Alan Lightman, best-selling author of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.” On the right is a portrait of Alan Lightman.

Minds wide open

Alan Lightman’s new book asks how a sense of transcendence can exist in brains made of atoms, molecules, and neurons.

Read full story