Every August, hundreds of incoming freshman girls and their families arrive on the University of Alabama campus for move-in day at Tutwiler Hall. With the sweltering Tuscaloosa heat upon them, the task of getting settled into their new home for the school year can appear to be a daunting task at first.
Lucky for these girls, they have chosen the dorm located two blocks away from Calvary Baptist Church. Every year, the church assists each new freshman at Tutwiler by lightening their load and making their move-in experience a more enjoyable one. This August will mark the third annual “Strut to the Tut” two-day move-in event orchestrated by Chris Brooks, college minister at Calvary Baptist, and hundreds of his church’s volunteers.
One Event with a Big Impact
The event started out as a small project. The first time Calvary got involved, they had one shift of workers help on Sunday after church without much preparation. After seeing the mass chaos of people and cars, the church began working with the university’s Director of Housing to better organize the event.
Now, families have a scheduled time for move-in, with improved guidance and communication for everyone involved. Upon families’ arrival to Tutwiler at their appointed time, Calvary volunteers unload the student’s belongings, help carry them inside, and then move them into their new room.
Chris Brooks puts 30-40 hours of preparation into the event, making sure that it is “a great experience not just for the students being helped, but for the participants as well.”
The event is mutually beneficial to the university and to the church. The respect and goodwill the church garners is invaluable, Brooks says, and does not go unrecognized. Each year, the university holds a banquet for all move-in day volunteers, and Calvary has won an award for their service for the past two years.
Last year, Calvary had 300 people working two full days 8am to 8pm. That group included volunteers from junior-high age to those in their eighties. “There is a huge need for students to see a multi-generational church because they’re disconnected from their families,” Brooks says.
Although each volunteer wears a shirt identifying Calvary Baptist, Brooks makes it clear that they are there “to serve the university, not to promote our own church.” He adds, “If we do one well, the other will come.”
During the first few weeks of school, the church has about one thousand college students in attendance. That number levels off at around 700 for the rest of the year, representing about forty to fifty percent of the whole church.
“The size definitely swells with the school year,” Brooks says. Calvary’s college ministry, known as The Well, provides a Wednesday night service for students in addition to the church’s two main Sunday services. Despite their growing ministry, Brooks emphasizes that “it’s not about gathering a big number, or ‘how many students can we get?’ It is more about one-on-one relationships on campus.”
The Church that Loves the University
Calvary hosts events for the students about once a month, including a pool party to kick off the school year, but Brooks says he “shies away from” big events at the church.
“I don’t want to draw students off campus,” Brooks says, “but revitalize them to go back and have an impact on their campus.”
Most important is the ministry’s presence on the campus, primarily through peer-led “Life Groups” that meet in dorms and apartments. The church encourages involvement in these small group meetings and has thirty to forty percent participation. Brooks makes sure students know that which church they join does not matter; what matters is their involvement and growth beyond a weekly worship service.
Upperclassmen Life Group leaders are trained and equipped to lead others on campus, and have “absolute freedom” in choosing Bible studies and organizing their groups. Brooks understands the support he gains from the student leaders and the impact they have on the church, calling them his “best advertisers, best evangelists.”
Brooks connects his ministry to students with a motto from Disney: “Smile and pick up trash.”
“That is what we’re doing—smiling and picking up suitcases and boxes. And out in the community, wherever we see poverty, brokenness in the world, we smile and pick up the trash.”
Brooks admits that at first, it did not feel as though they were doing anything major by helping new students move into their dorms. However, after working with the director of housing to build partnerships with churches, he now views it as a real mission opportunity. The entire church feels a lot of ownership over the event.
“The pride the church takes in [the ministry to Tutwiler] is huge; it takes on a life of its own,” Brooks says.
The true impact of the event is immeasurable. More than any other goal, Brooks’ hope for Calvary is that it is “known as the church that loves the university . . . and hopefully Christ is at the center of that.”
Starting a Move-In Day Outreach
For churches looking to reach out to their local colleges or universities with a similar move-in day event, Brooks has a few suggestions: “Where to start? Always with prayer,” he says.
He then suggests meeting with the director of housing at the university. It is most important to make it clear that the church is there to serve, not to use them as advertising. The church's involvement should be used to better the university.
“Especially in the Bible belt, people get suspicious when Christians serve,” Brooks says. “They think you’re going to hand them a tract.”
If there’s no structure in place for a move-in day or other campus partnership at your local college, Brooks suggests telling the director of housing about “Strut to the Tut” and offering to help organize the university’s move-in day strategy.
Or, start smaller: “Ask ‘Where’s a dorm we can adopt?’”
Brooks warns, “The biggest mistake would be pursuing your own agenda without the support of the university.”
Once a plan is in place, focus on organizing the event well, so that volunteers have the information they need to serve effectively.
“Happy volunteers understand what they’re supposed to do and feel that their work is worthwhile,” says Brooks.
Feed them beforehand and get people excited about what they are going to do. At Calvary, volunteers gather at the church and walk together (or “strut,” you might say) over to Tutwiler en masse.
“Make sure there’s momentum going into the event,” Brooks says. “People like to feel the mass of size and purpose.”
Discipleship Fuels Mission
Due at least in part to Brooks’ emphasis on discipleship, the church’s outreach to the university is not a one-way mission. The students involved in The Well and the church’s Life Groups learn that mission is a natural outgrowth of discipleship.
Calvary and the college students had an unprecedented opportunity put that commitment into practice a year ago when disaster struck Tuscaloosa. On April 27, 2011, a massive tornado tore across central Alabama. Despite the time that has passed from when the tornado hit his beloved city and university, Brooks still gets emotional when talking about the disaster. When asked how the disaster has affected his church, he stated firmly, “We will never be the same again.”
About nine months before the tornado hit, Brooks and the church realized and repented of the fact that most of their mission was focused inside the four walls of their church. They resolved to turn their focus outward, and worked with the mayor of Tuscaloosa to identify and begin working with the city’s most poverty-stricken district, Zone Two.
Zone Two’s Rosedale housing project was completely decimated by the April 27 tornado.
The housing leader in Rosedale asked if the church could help with furniture and other vital needs for fifteen elderly and disabled neighbors. Though Calvary didn’t have the funds on hand to help fifteen people, they nonetheless committed to help thirty. Before it was all done, Calvary had provided furniture, kitchen utensils, etc., and paid three months of bills for over one hundred people. Countless volunteers cleared debris and provided free child care for city workers and others affected by the tornado.
Among those participating in the relief efforts were the students of Calvary’s college ministry. Despite the fact that the university decided to end the school year after the tornado hit (canceling finals and postponing graduation, even) many students refused to leave, wanting to stay and help. Calvary had over one hundred and fifty student volunteers stay in Tuscaloosa and work to rebuild their favorite college town.
Brooks opened up his home to serve lunch and dinner to student volunteers, and remembers hearing many of his students calling home to tell their moms that they would not be coming home for Mothers’ Day because they wanted to stay and help. He felt confident that, given the circumstances, all of the mothers would understand. It was during this crisis that Brooks knew the students were becoming the young men and women their parents had always hoped they would be.
Through the college ministry of Calvary Baptist, the students learned the importance of building relationships with the people around them. The Life Group leaders were able to demonstrate the leadership skills their minister has taught them in a real time of need during the tornado. They have witnessed how serving others through small actions, like helping local students move into their dorms, can lead to actions that help save and restore lives.