Short-term Student Ministries with Slum Communities

This summer, thousands of university students from the Global North moved into urban slum communities in the Global South to live alongside the poor. (See the statistics in the sidebar.)

Working Definitions and Facts

“Urban poor” defined: Those living
on less than $1 USD or $2 USD per day
(Millennium Development Agenda).
Those living with inadequate income,
shelter and access to infrastructure
and basic daily services. Those who
have an unstable asset base, little
to no access to their rights as citizens
and are voiceless and powerless in
their communities.

Number of urban poor: est. 2 billion

“Slum community” defined: Communities
with inadequate access to safe drinking
water and sanitation, poor structural
housing, overcrowding and insecure
residential status (UN-Habitat).

Number of people living in slum
est. 924 million  

In February, Rebecca Atallah recounted the ministry she pursues with the garbage villages in Cairo. On a recent visit with her, she shared the marvellous contribution that InterVarsity students make each summer in her city. Teams serve with the children in the Mokattam community and with Sudanese refugees living in Cairo. I thought it would be appropriate to tell their story. In June, Scott Bessenecker wrote about InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s ministry across the globe in slum communities. (Visit and his blog for an excellent resource on ministry with the urban poor. Consult the book list below for texts Bessenecker has contributed on our theme.)

This month, a former Canadian student, Julia Smith-Brake, writes about her experience with child-headed households in Kigali. She did an internship as a student in Rwanda.

Over the past nine months we have walked with practitioners into Cap-Haïtien, Phnom Penh, Luanda, Angola, Bhopal and Calcutta, Cairo, Freetown, with Roma communities in Romania, and with the poor in Nordic cultures. We have also seen that poverty is a broad concept. It touches economic, social, physical, and spiritual realities. It affects peoples’ identity and includes social exclusion, absence of harmony in life and well-being, deprivation at every level of life, and one’s ability to participate in the welfare of the community.

However, as Jayakumar Christian points out, the causes of poverty can be traced to “inadequacies in the worldview.” A worldview can be a powerful instrument in perpetuating chronic poverty. All cultures and societies have within their worldview construct aspects of fallenness. And as we have seen, true Christian spirituality cannot be divorced from the struggle for justice and care for the poor and the oppressed. Spiritual formation is about empowering Christians to live their faith in the world. As students work alongside the poor, they learn about inadequacies in their own worldviews and experience incredible personal transformation.

Worthwhile Books to Consult on Slum Communities

  • For an introduction to urban missiology, I would recommend the urban reader, The Gospel and the Urban World. This “book” travels as a cd-rom and contains seven hundred pages of some of the best articles on urban ministry that have been printed in the past three decades, including good articles on slum communities. You can consult the reader and order it online at:
  • The 2003 United Nations global report on human settlements The Challenge of Slums (London: Earthscan) is a must-read for everyone interested in knowing more about the subject. It is a thorough study with plenty of charts and details.
  • Scott Bessenecker has written the very readable 2006 text The New Friars (InterVarsity Press). This book underscores principles and tells wonderful stories of men and women doing ministry with slum communities around the globe. He also edited the 2005 book Quest for Hope in the Slum Community (Waynesborough: Authentic). This is a very good collection of articles on the numerous challenges of ministry in these communities.
  • Planet of Slums by Mike Davis was published in 2006 (London: Verso). It is an excellent exploratory book on the subject of slums. It is quite thorough and very readable.
  • Shadow Cities—A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth was published in 2006 (Milton Park: Rouledge, 2006). This investigative reporter spent months living in squatter communities in places like Mumbai and Istanbul. He paints an upbeat picture of life in these unique places.  

Glenn Smith is senior associate for urban mission for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is executive director of Christian Direction in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is a professor of urban theology and missiology at the Institut de theologie pour la Francophonie at the Université de Montréal and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. He is also professor of urban missiology at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington, USA. Smith is editor of the Urban Communitees section.