KNOXVILLE – Urban Plunge is an inner-city project that exposes a select number of Johnson University students to community-based spiritual formation in center-city Knoxville.
Urban Plunge takes Johnson’s mission statement to “educate students for Christian ministries and other strategic vocations framed by the Great Commission in order to extend the kingdom of God among all nations,” and puts it into action by placing students in intentional neighborhoods in center-city Knoxville to be lights for Christ.
In its first year, two students participated, but over the years the number of students has increased. This year, Urban Plunge features eleven students participating in the program. These students are living out ministry in an at-risk neighborhood.
Kenny Woodhull, Director of Urban Alliance, said there are four core values that Urban Plunge tries to enforce.
“The four core values are spiritual formation, academics, intentional community, and urban ministry,” he said. “Everything we do through Urban Plunge is to enforce these core values.”
There are two duplex houses, each separated by gender, that the students live in. Each house has weekly meetings to touch base and make sure no issues are arising within the houses.
During the house meetings, different people tell their testimonies and talk about things they are experiencing in the house. It is a time for students to reflect on their urban experience and also grow spiritually together.
“When we get together and have dinner and pray with each other about life, we know we are on the same team and have a common goal,” said Jean Faton, who is experiencing his first year as a part of Urban Plunge.
Along with praying and worshipping together, each student has an older mentor in the urban environment that meets with them at least once a week. It is required and recommended that the students meet and have communication with their mentor as they go on their urban journey.
“Just having a mentor and being able to read the Bible with him has been really impactful in my life,” said Faton. “He is trying to help me figure out different career paths that I can explore. I like having someone there for me and he has been that light in my life.”
Woodhull said Urban Plunge students are encouraged to get involved in various urban ministries in the Knoxville community.
“Our plungers are making a difference through Emerald Youth and Lincoln Park United Methodist,” he said. “The plungers are coming along and helping people, and being positive role models by linking themselves with people in the community.”
Faton said, “One week I had to miss Emerald Youth and when I came back the next week, one of the students asked me, ‘Why weren’t you here last week?’ So just seeing that she depended on me being there showed me that she does care that someone is able to dedicate their time.”
Abigail Gibbons has been involved in the Urban Plunge program for two years. At first, she found the living conditions were not ideal, but she soon adapted to the urban world around her.
“Last year we lived in apartments, so it was a lot noisier than I expected,” she said. “With people always out it became easier to adapt and meet new people.”
She also had to get accustomed to the little things in life such as figuring out where to place furniture, and other life responsibilities such as managing her finances.
“It was a lot to adjust to at first—I didn’t feel really safe and that wasn’t something that I was expecting. After I got used to the culture, I felt more relaxed and when you have a level of trust it helps a lot,” Gibbons said.
“On campus having my friends live next to me was a luxury—off campus there are difficulties like carpooling to school and paying bills,” Faton said.
Urban Plunge creates a challenge for students to go beyond the “Johnson bubble” into the surrounding community desperate for God’s love.
Gibbons said, “My overall experience has been one where I have been put out of my comfort zone a lot. When there is a lot of darkness around you it makes you fully rely on God, and He can make His presence more known.”
She also went into Urban Plunge with very high expectations for change in the community, but soon realized that God was ultimately in control.
“I learned it could take years for there to actually be change and it is a process that does not happen overnight,” she said. “God is the one that cultivates the relationships and He will open up the doors.”
Living off campus compared to living on campus is very different coming from an environment like Johnson.
“I wanted to experience something else other than being on campus,” Gibbons said. “I have this beautiful relationship with God and I want to share it with other people.”
Faton said, “Change wasn’t a hard thing for me—even though it wasn’t part of my major, I knew it was an opportunity to do ministry in a way I haven’t done before.”
Faton would recommend Urban Plunge for anyone looking for a new opportunity or a different way of doing ministry.
“The experiences you learn from doing Urban Plunge are like no other,” he said.
For a Johnson student to participate in Urban Plunge, they must be a rising junior or senior and they must be willing to see and experience change. The potential to grow deeper relationships is much higher for students in the Urban Plunge program. Different majors are also represented, so there is no discrimination of who can be a part of this urban experience.
“There are minimum requirements for GPA and we want to make sure students can transition to off campus living. They have to be intentional people that can experience a unique level of living,” Woodhull said.
As far as finances goes, the students pay for the duplex, but the cost of living in the duplex is less than the cost of living on campus.
The Urban Plunge experience is allowing Johnson students to have hands-on experience being lights of Christ in center-city Knoxville.