May/June 2011 - Vol. 50


Sarah (right) with two young women from Youth-Works Detroit

Standing in the Gap in Detroit

By Sarah Nilles

In January 2010, a friend asked me if I had considered serving in the inner city of Detroit with Youth-Works Detroit, an outreach affiliated with the Sword of the Spirit. She was shocked that no one had ever talked to me about doing it since the Lord was doing a lot in my heart in the area of serving the poor in the inner-city, and participating in ecumenical Christian community – the very things that  were happening in Youth-Works Detroit. I applied and was accepted into the Detroit Summer Outreach (DSO) program.

I never would have imagined that saying "yes" to the summer program would lead to an invitation from the Lord to sign-up for a whole year of living and serving in Detroit. Josh Rock, the Director of Youth-Works Detroit, emailed me to prayerfully consider doing a Standing in the Gap year in Detroit following my time in the summer outreach program. I emailed Josh back saying that it was crazy to think about leaving university when I had one year left, and leaving Saint Paul's Outreach, where I had been serving as a student missionary at the University of St. Thomas inviting collage students to a life of radical discipleship through Jesus Christ, as well as starting to fundraise to fund a gap year of service when I had school loans, moving to a city that I knew nothing about, and approaching my parents back in Iowa about doing a program that I barely knew anything about. I said to Josh, "Doing a Gap year is crazy, but at the same time it makes a lot of sense to me because my heart desires most of the things that you are doing in Detroit." After prayer and many long conversations, I said "yes" to the invitation to do a gap year of service and experience the Lord's work in Detroit.


Sarah (center) with two participants in Bezalel Project Detroit

Everything in Detroit is raw and real. Detroit is bruised, broken, oppressed, and impoverished – yet I sense that the people here are so close to God's heart. I came into my year of service with a whole bunch of ideas about working with the poor. The Lord quickly taught me that this was his work and all of my ideas, game plans, and pride needed to be left at the door. I lead a youth group composed of three high school girls. I tried to do the "normal" youth group thing by leading worship, having Bible studies, giving talks, and doing girly things, but it didn't work. Finally, I surrendered and allowed the Lord to lead. It was messy and unconventional because I had to improvise a lot. And it didn't look like we were doing much, but last week, two of the younger girls dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ. I can't wait to see what God is going to do next week!

I have never felt so blessed in my entire life as I have here in Detroit.  I really sense God’s presence here. It’s like Moses before the burning bush – I get to walk on holy ground as I serve the Lord every single day. In so many daily ways I get to  see Christ's consuming love for his people. I can't explain it, but I experience it. I experience it at the Capuchin soup kitchen when I give Andre, a former gang leader, drug addict, and ex-con, a hug every Friday morning.  I experience it while holding Esther's hands, looking her in the eyes, telling her of God's love even though she believes that her heart is too cold to be loved. I experience it sitting in the Wilsons’ living room, a family that has next to nothing, shooting the breeze and sharing life with them. I experience it as when a child from our after-school program, Bezalel Project, runs towards me for a hug, or while driving through the city picking up or dropping off kids who participate in our programs. I experience it through our tight-knit Christian community here in Detroit that functions like a close family. I experience God's love for his beloved children here in Detroit, and it's a privilege to have so many opportunities to love those in need of him.

This past Christmas I received an ornament from my parents that says "Hope Shines Bright." A year ago, I would have never imagined that one simple invitation to serve in Detroit would change my life. The Lord invited me into the midst of his work, and I am truly privileged to say that "the hope of Christ truly shines bright in the city of Detroit."


Sarah Nilles is from Holland, Iowa. She attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota majoring in Elementary Education and Catholic Studies. While at St. Thomas, she became involved with St. Paul's Outreach serving as a student missionary before taking a year off school to serve with Youth Works-Detroit through the Standing in the GAP program. Afterward her year of service, she will finish her studies and graduate in May 2012.  To read more about Sarah's time in Detroit check out her blog: Called and Sent Out
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