As a graduate student in a multiplatform media class, Tatiana Schnurr could have featured anything in New York as her final project. But in a city of hopes and dreams, desire and disappointment, bounty, and poverty, Schnurr chose to feature mobile compassion in a video piece about The Relief Bus, a ministry that feeds the poor and homeless.
Schnurr, an international relations and public affairs graduate student at Columbia, didn't know a lot about video production, but took the class because she wanted to be familiar with the technology and resources should the opportunity arise in a future career position. She also wanted to use the final project as an opportunity to introduce Christianity into her classroom.
"It's a secular school, so I wanted to do a piece to show how people are impacted by faith," Schnurr said. "I really wanted to bring that into the classroom."
Schnurr received the idea for her final project from a fellow congregant at Times Square Church in New York, where she is a worship singer. The Relief Bus, based in Elizabeth, New Jersey, is a ministry that provides food and hope for the down and out on the streets of Metro New York City.
In the neighborhoods of the South Bronx, Manhattan, Newark, and Elizabeth, Relief Bus volunteers bring food and hope to those in need by handing out hearty vegetable soup and bread. From two refurbished busses, they dispense love, encouragement, and tangible tools to revive the hearts and lives of those ready and willing to make a change.
Poverty isn't new to Schnurr. She's witnessed it on the streets of New York, and has also encountered it in Brazil, where she has spent time studying. Still, she said, the environment around the bus was a stark contrast to the Ivy League halls where she spends her days.
"I was really blown away by the way people live in daily need not knowing if they will have what they need to get by. It's a dreary, dark atmosphere," she said.
Yet, in the midst of the darkness, Schnurr said the Relief Bus provided a ray of hope. "The bus seems to have a lot of life around it," she said, explaining that some food recipients stay all day just to feel part of the community there.
To gain the trust of the Relief Bus team and the people they serve, Schnurr started as a volunteer. She started praying for the people she met at the bus, and because many of the same people return each week, she even developed friendships.
"Margarita from Puerto Rico was one of my favorites," Schnurr said. "She was happy to see me because she knew I cared for her and was praying for her."
In addition to helping the poor and the afflicted, Schnurr said she wanted to bring fellow students to the bus to show them what it meant to be Christian.
"When people think of church work, they think of soup kitchens. This is something these people dedicate their lives to," she said.
Schnurr also wanted to bring the witness of Christ at work through the bus into her classroom at Columbia. However, she wasn't sure how the academy would respond to the Christian subject matter.
"I wanted to do a godly subject and this felt right," she said. "I didn't know how it was going to be taken. There was uncertainty," she said. Even other Christians had cautioned her about doing an overtly Christian project.
To her delight, however, the instructor and the class welcomed the project. In fact, it was one of only five selected as a class group project. That meant that Schnurr was able to bring four of her classmates to the bus to work on the video and to witness God's work there.
"They really felt good about what they were doing," Schnurr said of her peers. She also said they seemed comfortable helping to distribute the food while Schnurr and the other volunteers openly prayed for the community.
The final outcome was a video that depicted the bleakness of the city and the snow and rain through which the bus traveled. But it also showed the smiles of people who felt loved and cared for, and it shared the stories of those whose lives have been transformed from drug addiction, all because someone cared about them.
Schnurr received an A for the project, but more than a grade, the project gave Christ the spotlight in the classroom, and touched the hearts of all those involved.
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Ivy League Christian Observer, a publication of The Christian Union. Used with permission. The Christian Union (www.Christian-Union.org) is a Christian leadership development ministry based in Princeton, N.J.