Cindy Soria may have lived in a big house with her family, but like many teens living through the Great Recession, security was often fleeting.
“The rent was going up every month,” she said. “We barely had food to eat. I remember eating just beans and tortillas for a while. I missed eating meat and snacks like chips and cookies.”
Instead of dwelling on what she didn’t have Soria decided to stay busy with school and volunteering so she “wouldn’t feel bad about myself not doing anything.
“But even when I volunteered and took advantage of opportunities at school, I wasn’t fulfilled,” she said.
That changed during her senior year at Mar Vista High School when Soria accepted an invitation by her Aunt Arlyne to attend a program offered by UrbanLife, an inner city ministry dedicated to transforming people who can then transform their neighborhoods in City Heights and Southeastern San Diego. Arlyne, just a year older than her niece, was a volunteer with UrbanLife’s high school program.
“I went to the high school night program expecting the worst, and I actually felt welcomed and curious about God,” Soria, now 23, said. “We had leadership classes after church every other Sunday. Through church, meetings and Bible studies I became more aware of what becoming a Christian looked like.”
And she liked what she saw.
At UrbanLife she discovered a team of young adults committed to youth development through a variety of programs that included spiritual mentoring, relationship building and practical outreaches such as a running club, urban gardening, tutoring, service projects and the UrbanLife College Achievement Network, known as UCAN.
“There are so many different elements when you’re trying to tackle neighborhoods affected by poverty and injustice, that it can quickly become overwhelming,” said Sarah Carter, executive director of UrbanLife.
Carter, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in business administration, joined UrbanLife after spending a decade in ministry with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Her time with InterVarsity, she said, fueled her passion for ministry.
“It was through God’s pursuit of me, and being surrounded by other young people who wanted to follow Jesus, that helped me decide to not hold anything back from God,” she said. “From that point, it has been an amazing journey to center my life around being radically discipled by Jesus.”
Carter arrived at UrbanLife with her husband, B.J., who directs the ministry’s farm program.
“We were in a small group with some of the UrbanLife staff, particularly the founder Jake Medcalf,” she said. “Jake began to talk about what the opportunities were at UrbanLife. I began to pray about joining UrbanLife, and it seemed like God had already lined up many things, including living in the neighborhood that I would be serving, and utilizing my skills and experience in Christian community development and church planting. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it has been an amazing journey that I am privileged to be a part of.”
The ministry emphasis is two-pronged, focusing on church plants that they call missional communities, along with community development initiatives. In essence, the team spiritually feeds youth and young adults and then trains them to pass it on. UrbanLife reaches as many as 300 youth and children annually with a corps of 75 volunteers who donate more than 5,000 hours annually. They have seven paid staff members and expect to expand that number to 10 by the end of the year.
“God has continued to show me His preferential care and concern about those on the margins, and challenged me to believe bigger, have more faith, in what He can and will do as we work with Him and through Him,” she said.
Carter said she marvels at how God is shaping her while shaping the ministry.
“I think I have learned my tendency to trust in my own plans or strength, and how limiting, and truly how sinful that is,” she said. “All good works and effort come from the work of the Holy Spirit through God’s people. I am still on a constant learning curve to seek the Lord and His plan for UrbanLife, to rely on His dreams and plans, and operate out of God’s power to get it done.”
In addition to the internal work of UrbanLIfe, the ministry also collaborates with other inner city ministries such as Urban Young Life, Urban Youth Collaborative, numerous churches and various secular organizations including Second Chance, plus local school administrators.
Although the initial focus of UrbanLife is centered on changing the hearts of young people one at a time, its goal is to multiply that outreach by resourcing young people so they can “pay it forward.”
“When I came to Urbanlife I went on a trip called mission week,” Soria said. “I gave up my week of spring break to help others. I volunteered at a homeless shelter and had to reorganize some thrift shops. That’s when I realized that God exists. He showed me what it was like to have nothing and what it is to have everything. And how easily it can be taken away. I learned that I should get to know others before judging them. I wanted to be better. I wanted to know what life with God was like.”
That journey with God triggered immense changes in Soria as she began her life as an adult.
“My relationship with God has grown over the years, being challenged to learn more and read more,” she said. “My relationship with my family and issues I’ve had, UrbanLife has been there to listen and pray with me. UrbanLife has made me the leader I am today. It has been a way of life, helping one another and our community.”
Soria has honed those skills serving adolescents through the ministry’s middle school program.
“I fell in love with the kids and how I could relate to them and share stories,” she said. “It was the perfect fit. I was a committed volunteer leader for four and a half years.”
That journey was not without its ebbs and flows. Two years ago, while balancing her job at Sea World with ministry commitments for UrbanLife, Soria floundered.
“I felt I was giving my all and not receiving anything back, God wasn’t listening to my prayers. I was being appreciated at work, (but) I felt replaceable at UrbanLife,” she said. “I had distanced myself from God and UrbanLife that summer. In September I realized that I needed God in my life and I couldn’t do it alone. I needed my UrbanLife family.”
She reached out to one of the ministry leaders, who helped her re-prioritize her life.
“I told him how I felt and that I just wanted to be involved again and do what I loved most, hanging out with middle school kids,” Soria said. “I have learned that your faith doesn’t stop growing, whether you know more or less of God or the Bible. My faith has been growing through my own experiences with God and seeing other miracles happen with students and friends.”
That experience only further solidified her commitment to help other young people cultivate the organic nature of their own faith.
“Even though it might feel like certain situations and experiences are only happening to you, you are not alone,” she likes to tell people. “God might take a while to show up, but he never fails. God loves you and he puts people in your path to share your story. So don’t be afraid to share and let others in.”
Recognizing her clear call to youth, UrbanLife brought Soria on staff last year where she serves as director of the middle school program.
“My favorite part of urban ministry is seeing all the good a kid can offer, but they haven’t noticed it yet,” she said. “Seeing them grow, not just as they get older or move on to the next grade, but their spiritual growth with God. They don’t just accept God, but ask questions and are curious about him.”
As chief orchestrator for UrbanLife, Carter said Soria’s success is one of many constant reminders of why she remains committed to the ministry. She lauded her young middle school leader who recently escorted 30 students to a transformational camp at Forest Home.
“Cindy had to deal with upset parents and rowdy middle school boys, while still focusing on discipling her cabin of girls,” she said. “She grew so much in her leadership, and is an amazing example of someone who was transformed and is now transforming her neighborhood through leading our middle school program.”
Another UrbanLife leader guided six high-schoolers in a meeting with San Diego Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, where they pitched the need for more recreational space in their neighborhoods.
“(They were) telling her how God showed them that they can make a positive impact in their neighborhood through our summer internship,” Carter said.
Soria credits the skills she learned through the ministry with helping her to pursue something greater than a fast food job and single parenthood.
“If I hadn’t been involved with UrbanLife I would probably be living in Imperial Beach never knowing about God or experiencing God’s presence,” she said, adding that her leaders also gave practical, biblical advice on purity and holiness. I would probably not know how to respect myself and (would have) become a single mom. I would have let someone take advantage of me if I didn’t have a conversation with my leader about self-respect and waiting till marriage.
“God is big and powerful, but he wants to be our friend, our father and our teacher. And that God loves us for who we are.”
— by Lori Arnold