Oxford church provides free rides to students, with religious twist
By Brian Senters, For The Miami Student
It's 11 p.m. on Halloween at the Oxford Vineyard, a non-denominational Christian church, and volunteers are gathered around in a colorful room, sharing testimony with one another and praying before their night out. Groups of volunteers gear up and prepare for the night ahead, packing water bottles, hot chocolate and business cards.
That's the way the volunteers start every night when they operate 'God's Bus,' a free ride service that provides Miami students with transportation to any location in Oxford.
Chris Marsman, Oxford Vineyard volunteer and Miami alumnus who operates the call center for the God's Bus, brought the program to Oxford in May 2014 after seeing a similar program called 'Beach Reach.'
While on a trip to Panama City Beach, Florida during spring break with Campus Crusade for Christ, Marsman watched as Beach Reach gave free rides to the spring breakers and operated pancake breakfasts.
"Oxford has the exact same environment that's down there, every weekend," Marsman said, explaining one of the reasons behind this program is to get students home safely.
Three volunteers operate God's Bus. One individual, known as the 'navigator,' receives requests from the call center and maintains contact with the other volunteers, assisting the driver with pick-up requests.
Separate from navigating and driving, each bus features a host - the person responsible for making the guests feel comfortable. The host engages student riders with conversation while en route to their destination.
Brightly lit with a Bible in the cargo holder and bottles of water in every cup holder, the bus makes for a comforting, interactive ride.
Each time God's Bus volunteers provide this service, they use rental vans, so it's up to the volunteers to dress each vehicle for the occasion.
Riders can call a number requesting pick-up service, but the host often asks people walking around if they'd prefer a ride. Kirsten Anderson, a host of one of the busses, said weather conditions often determine the ratio of those who call for rides and those who are simply picked up.
The cold and rainy conditions Saturday meant that God's Bus faced an increased demand.
Anderson counted 47 people picked up one night in 20 to 30 trips, not including the second shuttle they were operating that evening.
Upon offering the ride service to pedestrians out in the rain on Halloween night, two visibly intoxicated, yet verbally coherent gentlemen near Hawks Landing happily obliged to take the service. Thus commenced a conversation on the delights of the cookies they had just eaten, to which the host met them with genuine enthusiasm and an unfading smile.
Some were on their way Uptown, others on their way back to the dorms. Most students chatted politely with the hosts, regardless of their condition.
The volunteers treated everyone the same, no matter if they were drunk, sober or somewhere in between. Upon arriving at their destination, the host asked each of the riders if there was anything she could pray about for them.
Amid midterms, many requested a prayer for their stress, anxiety and other matters related to a strenuous academic lifestyle. Everyone bowed their heads and closed their eyes as the host prepared a brief, but meaningful vocalization of the riders' requests.
Not all guests returned the kindness shown to them. Some used vulgar language and got into arguments over the phone.
One female demanded the bus stop at Skipper's Pub, where she forced her male friend to go in and buy her some mac-n-cheese bites. She punctuated the remainder of her trip with occasional yells, a few tears and a call to her ex.
This is just part of the job. The volunteers aboard God's Bus were indifferent to the drunken antics.
On the corner of Main and High Streets, John Richter, pastor of the Oxford Vineyard, stood handing out water bottles and talking to students passing by.
"It's a crowd of people that aren't going to step into a church building, and we want them to know that God loves them," Richter said.
The volunteers for God's Bus stayed out until 3 a.m., offering rides, water and hot chocolate during Saturday's cold, rainy night. They'll continue to offer this service as a part of their mission to spread God's love and compassion, according to volunteers with God's Bus.
"Our two main goals are to get people home safely and show them the love of God," Marsman said.