Rows of ragged mobile homes stretch far into the distance. It’s the middle of the afternoon and two drug dealers are posted up on the neighborhood corner as if to call the bluff of local law enforcement. Crack houses are littered throughout the mobile home camp, gang culture is rampant and drug use is widespread.
Twenty minutes away thousands of university students hurry to and from classes occupied by impending exams, friends and spring break plans. It is too easy to spend four years at Auburn University and never even know about the extreme rural poverty less than 10 miles away in the city of Opelika.
The gap between life on Montgomery Street in Opelika and life on College Street in Auburn couldn’t be much different. In Auburn students wear the colors of their respective fraternity or sorority. In Opelika, high school students hang gang flags from their back pockets. Though the different cultures coexist in the shadows of one another, interaction between the two is limited.
However, Tuesday is different.
The early spring sun is overcoming the wintry air as a team of college students works to clear out a lot of broken bottles and beat-down kudzu vine.
“This area has a reputation for hosting drug deals,” Ben Collins, the associate director of Baptist Campus Ministry (BCM) at Stetson University says. “Today our team is working to transform this symbol of evil into a neighborhood garden.”
Ben is helping lead a group of 34 Stetson University students, currently on spring break, to restore areas of need in Opelika.
“We have students at several different sites near Montgomery Street,” Collins Says. “One group is rebuilding the front steps of a home and others are repairing walls and installing inside and outside lighting for mobile homes in need.”
In addition the group has used their week to tear down mobile homes that are being used to aid drug deals, tend to overgrown front yards of elderly neighbors and serve in the area’s food pantry.
Spending a week serving the citizens of Opelika isn’t your typical college student spring break option. The group from Deland, Fla., has opted out of a 30-minute drive to the beach to instead drive seven hours to Opelika where they work eight hours each day and sleep on the floor.
“This is our understanding of what it means to follow Christ,” Ben explains. “First Baptist Church of Opelika is allowing us to stay at the church for free and we’re sleeping on the floor and basically camping out at their facility.”
On Friday the group returned to Stetson University, but a neighborhood garden, a repaired set of steps, a renewed front yard and restored mobile homes stand as monuments of hope throughout the Opelika area.
On Saturday the local community picked up where the college group left off. Between Keep Opelika Beautiful’s Citywide Cleanup and The Way Ministries’ My Jerusalem, more than 1,100 volunteers worked to help restore areas of the city in need.
“For the Citywide Cleanup, we’re not just focusing on one part of the city,” Tipi Miller, director of Keep Opelika Beautiful says. “We have volunteers in many different areas working to pick up trash and reestablish Opelika as a city we can all be proud to call home.”
Keep Opelika Beautiful’s Citywide Cleanup is a local extension of Keep America Beautiful’s Great American Cleanup. Each year, millions of volunteers in over 15,000 communities across the country take part in the day of service to their community.
“Sadly, there’s enough work to go around,” Miller states. “But I think it’s a big encouragement to the city to see so many of its citizens working together to make Opelika a great place to live.”
Alongside the efforts of the Citywide Cleanup, more than 1,000 volunteers from area churches worked to serve the needy in Opelika as part of a biannual day of service known as My Jerusalem. Thirty-eight work sites were abuzz Saturday afternoon as members of the community worked to repair homes, clean front yards, fix roofs and restore other areas in need.
Though the projects are service oriented, Shane Kyles, founder of The Way Ministries and director of My Jerusalem, insists that the purpose of all the work is to build relationship within the community.
“The service projects give us the privilege of meeting people we might not normally get the chance to meet,” Kyles says. “As Christians we must be in the business of loving our neighbor. I’m not sure how you can love someone if you don’t know them.”
Though The Way Ministries serves to coordinate My Jerusalem, Kyles is reluctant to take credit for his contributions.
“This isn’t my idea. I believe this is God’s idea,” Kyles explains. “We are all blessed to be a part of the body of Christ working together in this area.”
A majority of the churches in the Auburn-Opelika area participated in this spring’s My Jerusalem event. The day of service received a boost in support thanks to the impending Will Graham Celebration which partnered to raise awareness for the event.
As the sun finally sets on a long day of work, tears begin to swell in the eyes of Mary Heard. A work crew is putting the finishing touches on her new back deck. Heard, who lives in Opelika with her two children and her two grandchildren, is visibly moved by the communities act of love.
“I don’t know what I would do without Mr. Shane and the rest of the workers,” Mrs. Heard says. “I enjoy having them around the house, and their hard work is a big reason we’ve been able to keep the trailer for as long as we have.”
Saturday, March 6, 2010, may have been the largest day of service Opelika has ever experienced, and the impacts from the day’s work will continue to encourage the community well into the future. However those truly concerned with the widespread poverty in Opelika know that the solution to the problem is not one day of service, but rather a lifestyle of loving others.
“We always have projects,” Kyles says. “We need local people to step up and love their neighbors every day.”
If you would like to learn how to get involved in helping restore areas of Opelika in need, contact Shane Kyles at info@TheWayMinistriesOnline.org or Tipi Miller at info@KeepOpelikaBeautiful.com.