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Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Year That Changed Everything

My journey started on the evening of September 3, 2011 as I pulled off I-75/I-85 in Atlanta, Georgia. It was time for me to begin my year as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV). The year would be full of ups and downs, laughter and crying, great times and not so great times, making new friends and losing old friends, finding true joy, living simply, mentors, finding God, and finding out about Thomas.

A week prior to arriving in Atlanta all the YAV’s ready to embark on their year of service gathered together at orientation in Stony Point, New York. During this week myself and the other 70ish YAV’s spent the day sitting through seminars about what to expect in our year of service. The topics of the meeting ranged from Culture Competency and Culture Shock to Living in Community and Self Care. The YAV office from Louisville, Kentucky made sure they gave us as much information as they could in a week’s worth of time.

I want to back track for just a second to give some helpful information about where I was before taking the position as a YAV in Atlanta. I graduated from Florida State University in December 2010 with a degree in Hospitality Administration from The College of Business. I accepted a position at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota as a Corporate Management Trainee. I started early January 2011. Feeling burnt out and let down by the corporate industry, my time with the Hyatt came to an end after my six month program. So leaving the Hyatt gave me the opportunity to take on the year of mission work.

So back to orientation: Coming from the corporate job and living a completely different life made the transition into a year of service difficult. I was under the impression that I was going to Atlanta to have a year where I helped some people, lived with a couple of new folks, got more connected with God, and got out of Florida. I was going to be a YAV but not really, at the end of my program I would make my way back into the Hospitality Industry where I would continue to grow my 401K. So I did not really need to immerse myself completely into this year because it was going to be just that, just a year.

I think that a different plan was in store for me, even when I was not thinking it or looking for one. A very distinct memory I have from orientation is singing and learning to love Psalm 139. Something about the Psalm spoke to me in that time and I have continued to use it throughout my year. I can remember on the free afternoon taking a run with a friend down to a lake surrounded by mountains. As we sat down on a dock and talked something just felt different. It had been months since I had felt at such peace, it was at this moment when I realized (at least looking back I realized) that it was going to be a special year.

The Grant Park House, where the seven of us, then six, then seven, then six of us lived for the year. It was a great Victorian Style house probably built somewhere between 1900 and 1910. From that time it had seen many residents, renovations and paint jobs. The house could have used lots of renovations but for us it was perfect. The only true structural damage occurred when part of the living room ceiling collapsed because of an upstairs leak! It was quite a mess! Living in the house was myself, John Lanigan, Leslie Leonard, and Emily Peterson who were all YAV’s and then we had Greg Wickersham and Ed Amos who were local Dwellers. Alan Jenkins and Sean Fenelon also lived in the house at different parts of the year but did not stay the entire year. So you might ask what is a Dweller? So YAV partners with DOOR for some of the national sites, DOOR calls their yearlong volunteers Dwellers. So by default the YAV’s that go to DOOR sites are considered YAV’s/Dweller’s. I am sure that does not make 100% sense, but it’s the best I am going to do for now!

The Grant Park house was an Intentional Christian Community and along with that came some different things. We dedicated one night a week for a house meeting called “Dwell Night.” During this time together we would check in with each other, go over/figure out any logistical items (the nice way to say the stuff we needed to talk about that was not good), usually discussed a book we were reading, or did a bible study together. We created a covenant as a house that would serve as the ground rules for living in community for the year. Out of this we decided on the ways we would live simply, really we had no other choice because we were not making any money! We created a grocery budget, which meant we all put in a set amount of money for the month and would share all the food we had. As a house we shared four meals together each week, we all would take turns cooking. Believe it or not we ate very well! Every so often we got to take a weekend retreat. Some of retreats we took were to Cow Day in Madison, GA, The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA, A Beach House in Tybee Island, and the Jubilee Farm outside of Athens, GA.

Living in community did not come without a cost. Many nights were spent discussing issues that I may or may not have felt were important to me. Living in community meant that this year was not all about me; I had to account for six other people. The age range in our house was 22 to 41, and we had people there from Tallahassee, Fl to Las Angeles, California. Not one personality matched another and without this program probably none of us would have ever been friends. We had four YAV’s living on a monthly stipend, one full time state worker, one golf caddie, and another living on SSDI. As a house we rode to the mountain tops together and we also dipped to the deepest of the valleys, but we did it all together. We laughed together, we dove into some deep issues including race, social justice and immigration, we yelled at one another, we hugged one another, we partied together, we called out each other’s flaws, we held each other up, we loved each other, we hated each other, but mostly we tried to treat each other as blessed children of God. Though many days during the year I would have said different, I can say now with pride that I would not have changed a single person in my community for anyone else.

I just returned home from the Ghost Ranch Retreat Center outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico where we had the YAV Transition Retreat. The retreat officially marks the end of my year of service as a Young Adult Volunteer. During the retreat all the YAV’s from all across the globe met up one last time to discuss what it means to transition back to whatever is next in life. As you can imagine each person was at a different point in their transition stage. One thing that was talked a lot about in my small group was, sharing your story. How do you explain a year in one piece of writing or one conversation? Who really wants to hear the whole story? How can I explain the whole story if I am having trouble contemplating the whole story myself? Does anyone actually care? The weekend was very meaningful and powerful especially to be spending it with an incredible group of young adults. It is truly an honor to have been part of something that is way bigger then myself. We are all done with our YAV years but it will not be a journey that we soon forget.

Getting back to the year, I wanted to put that section in to let you know that it is going to be hard to write a single blog entry about an entire year. What I do know is that if you are reading this blog you are one of the people that truly cares about my year and do want to get the whole true story. So before I go any further I want to thank you for taking the time to read this and I am going to do my best without writing a novel to tell you about the rest of my year.

In September I was excited to get started with my new placements that I would be working at for the entirety of my year. I would be working part time at The Central Outreach and Advocacy Center (OAC) and part time with DOOR. The times I would be most needed working for DOOR would be when the spring break and summer groups arrived. This meant that I would have some free time, because of that freedom I was able to pick up working a day at Mercy Community Church.

Central Outreach and Advocacy Center is a non-profit located in the basement of Central Presbyterian Church. The OAC works with people in Atlanta that are dealing with issues of homelessness, we work with some folks who have been homeless for 24 hours and we work with those who have been homeless for 24 years. The OAC has three main programs in the outreach side of the operation which is Crisis Services, Main Frame Job Readiness Program, and The Exodus Journey (long term case management). Crisis Services is what I was a part of. It could also be described as short term case management; the guests (we like the term guest better then client) that come for a service can get what they need in a single meeting. The main services we provide are Birth Certificates, Georgia ID Cards, Clothing, Food, Dental and Medical Vouchers, Reading Glasses, and Homeless Verification Letters. The crisis service’s is operated mostly by volunteers. I worked as an Outreach Advocate (case worker) each morning seeing anywhere from six to twelve guests.

A typical morning started when the doors opened at 9:00PM and the guest’s some who had lined up as early as 6:00AM enter the center. Each guest checks in at the front desk window and is given a spot either on the appointment or waiting list. The staff person based on the amount of volunteers working on the particular day can put X amount of people on the daily list to be seen. Unfortunately the remaining people have to come back and try again the next day.

As an Outreach Advocate it was my job to sit with each individual guest, fill out three forms of paperwork and then figure out the best solution to get the guest what they needed that particular day. With each guest came a different situation and a different path to reach the solution. I had no prior training in case work and being new to Atlanta and the services the city could provide I did a lot of learning on my feet/trial by fire for the first month or so. From the start I always enjoyed creating a safe space to allow conversation; I felt it was part of my mission to be a listening ear to those who I worked with. Throughout the year I listened to many stories, stories of pain, loss, overcoming death, hurt, humiliation, love, faith, and new beginnings. It was in these stories, and looking at our guest’s in the eyes each day where I formed my true passion for working with the marginalized.

Working for the DOOR network never really worked out. It is funny how things happen though, the main reason that I decided to come to Atlanta was because one of the site coordinators sold me on that job. I struggled with issues revolving around my placement with DOOR and felt at points of the year betrayed by leadership of the organization. Still today I feel like I was left with no closure surrounding the placement. I do believe that it was all meant to be, though the actual DOOR placement turned out to be a disaster, without DOOR I would have never been able to work with Mercy Community Church. This I am very thankful for.

Mercy Community Church turned out to be much more than a once a week placement. Pastor Chad Hyatt and the entire Mercy community was by far the most significant part of my YAV year. The best way to try and describe Mercy is a traditional grass root organic community that is also church. Chad started Mercy seven years ago in the living room of his apartment and it has grown organically out of that. The reason I use the word organic is because Chad has never forced the growth of the community, he has let the community evolve on its own. Mercy is not a 401(c)3 non-profit and Pastor Chad does not take a salary. He feels that this is the only way he is able to provide the maximum amount of hospitality to his community. The largest group of community members are men and women that are currently living on the streets, most would be considered chronically homeless(suffer from a disabling condition and have been living on the streets for over a year). Also involved in the community is associate pastor Maggie Leonard, a YAV(me), two seminary interns, a intern from North Carolina, a PhD student of English from Georgia State University, and many volunteers ranging in skills from art to cooking.

I remember walking in the first day excited to be starting a new placement. I had heard a little about what Mercy was but was not real sure what all happened during the day. I walked in at 8:00AM when the gates to Mercy opened. All around me folks were pouring hot coffee and spreading butter and homemade jelly on their toast. I walked up to Chad and after he embraced me with a huge welcome hug, I asked him what he wanted me to do? I still to this day remember the next words that he spoke “I just want you to be part of the community” and he walked away. Now I was slightly confused, I mean I was trying to be the super YAV of the year, and I knew that I had skills that Chad would be able to use. But I think he just told me he “just wanted me to be part of the community”. They say that YAV is a year of service and a lifetime of change. I did not realize it at the time but those simple words were the start of that lifetime of change.

I do know that everything at Mercy did not come easy; it took me sometime to really check in and become a true community member. For those of you who know me, I don’t normally have a problem talking or at least making some sort of noise at all times of the day. So for me not to be talking is a very odd sensation, and for the first couple of months at Mercy I did not do a whole lot of talking but I did do lots and lots of listening. Everyday Mercy is open, after hospitality time from 8AM to 9AM comes prayer time from 9AM to 10AM during this time I would try to play along with Chad on my guitar as we sang songs in English and Spanish. After the songs I would listen to the joys and concerns of the community members. Let me tell you that this is not your typical Sunday school prayer; the folks that come to Mercy are not shy when it comes to being real. The men and women share real pain, real suffering, real joys, and real prayer requests, nothing at Mercy gets watered down. After prayer we move into bible study from 10AM to 11AM. Chad starts bible study by reading a selected passage from the bible in both English and Spanish. After this he gives some background/leading information about the passage and then opens the discussion up to the community. It is at this time when I just love to listen and be present. You would not believe the prolific things that come out the mouths of community members during bible study. The people that society has cast as the lowest of lows, the folks that are invisible to the world, those who have no voices are heard at Mercy church and it is beautiful.

Chad’s background is a former Pentecostal Preacher and let me tell you he is definitely fired up about the scriptures. He preaches on the brokenness of our world and how each and every one of us are all broken in our own ways. We walk through the life of Jesus reading the scriptures as I feel they were intended to be read, that Jesus spent his life walking with those who had little. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, Jesus preached, healed, and walked with the marginalized people of his time. Chad is one of the most passionate people that I have ever met in my life and he is truly a present day Saint.

The day I would come to Mercy would be on Thursdays, after bible study we would do an hour of music time. During this time myself and Chad would play guitars, Claude would always be on the djembe, and other would play pots, shakers, tambourines, or whatever was around. It was during these hour sessions that I truly gained my new found passion for music. Most of the songs that we play are originals that Chad puts together, and they are great songs. One thing Chad is great at doing is getting you to do things that you really don’t want to do. For me that was to lead music in front of the group. I had lead music with high school students at youth group but nothing like this. Now leading music has become a new found love for me this year which I would have never even know about without a little help.

At the end of each day at Mercy we take food out into the streets. The food is prepared from scratch by the community members, Jesus usually makes the soup. He can make any and all ingredients he puts in the pot taste amazing, it is incredible. All the food that we get at Mercy is donated from various grocery stores, other non-profits and individual donors. We stop at two different places to serve food; the first stop is a couple of blocks down the road on the sidewalk by an old blockbuster. At this stop we serve most of the folks that had been at Mercy that day and some others that usually come from the nearby parks. The second stop is about a half mile down the road at “Catch out Corner” outside of the Home Depot. Here we serve the guys waiting to pick up work for the day. Taking food out into the streets is a great way to extend the table and to make sure that everyone is invited to enjoy the feast that he provides.

Chad has become a true mentor and friend to me this year. We try and meet up at least once a week outside of Mercy. Over the course of the year we have shared many stories and have answered many questions. It is a great feeling to know that you have an advocate on your side that wants nothing but the best for your life. What a blessing to have a friend there for the good and the bad times, always putting situations back into perspective. Not trying to get to sappy but I am very thankful that I have had a friend like Chad to walk with me this year.

This blog post is beginning to become a short novel, so I will now try and put my year into perspective.

What started out as just a year, turned into the year that changed everything! The process was a slow one, and many days I was ready to give up on the whole thing. If I had to describe my YAV year in one word it would be “intentional.” My year became about me being accountable for myself, trying to be intentional about every decision I made. Did I screw it up? A lot of the times I did, but I always tried to learn from my mistakes. I made an intentional decision to give up all alcohol for a month, not because it was a problem but because I could see it was an unhealthy way to de-stress. In that month I showed myself how much control I truly have over my body and the decisions that I make. I was intentional about my training and running plans; I set a schedule and stuck to it. Out of this birthed a new passion and love of running and I am happy to say that this year I have completed a half-marathon, 15K, 10K, and multiple 5K races and have run over 500 miles.

I look back on stories that helped shape my year: The lady I worked with at the OAC who told me she had just watched her friend jump off the bridge into the oncoming traffic, and she had nowhere to turn. Or sitting behind the thick glass at the Stewart Detention Center, I talked with a man I had never met through an old jail phone. He was being held at the detention center with no rights and no scheduled release or deportation date. He had a wife in two kids waiting for him back in North Carolina, where they had been living for over 10 years. Or the time at Mercy when we invited a young girl who spends most of her life on the railway trains to truly be a part of our community because we wanted her there just to be herself. I can still here her voice telling me “this is the church home I’ve been looking for my entire life.” Or the time I drove a man that was recently released from prison 70 miles so he would be able to make his probation. I also remember sitting in the lobby and waiting when I was told by the staff there was nothing else that I was able to do to help this man. This man now has an apartment, a job, and a lot more things to come, sounds like those people were wrong about him. I remember hundreds of hours of conversations with people dealing with homelessness issues at Mercy and the OAC. It was in these conversations where I became the listener and the student; I owe everything I have learned this year to those people. I remember gaining a new love for the scriptures and a getting fired up about the Holy Spirit while participating in bible studies at Mercy. Or waking up early on Sunday mornings to meet with a group at a coffee shop to discuss books written by Henry Nouwen and Ignatius of Loyola. I remember leading songs with my guitar and vocals with Chad during Sunday worship. How could I forget the house meetings that would never end, or the countless arguments about the small stuff? Or the house retreats to Providence Canyon, Madison, Tybee Island, Jubilee, and the Calvin Center. The memories and stories that I experienced this year both good and bad is what made this such an incredible ride.

In some ways I feel like this year is just beginning for me. I feel that most of my internal change has occurred in the last couple of months. So that being said, this is a very exciting time for me as I continue to work and grow into something different. This process will ultimately take a lifetime of work but I do believe that I have started that journey this year. My hope is that I continue to learn and grow each and every day, and that I use what I learned this year to continue in that growth. If I surround myself with the positive and live out the intentional lifestyle that I have started, I am excited to see what the next chapter of my life brings.

I have never been big on call stories or the notion that God is always doing things in your life for a reason. But as I write this, I can truly say that I feel that God put me here in Atlanta this year for a reason. Throughout the year things just continued to fall into place, most of the time, right at the perfect time. During this year I hope that I touched the lives of the people I worked with. My hope is they realize the positive effect each of them had on my life. Even though I thought I was taking a year in Atlanta to serve people, at the end of the day I feel like I received much more then I was able put out. What I do know is that this year was no mistake, and the new feelings and passion churning inside me is real. What started as a year to forget has turned into the year that changed everything.

So I dedicate this year to all those people who walked with me and helped me learn. To Ed, Leslie, Emily, John, Greg, Alan and Sean, my housemates throughout the year. To Kimberly and Adam my supervisors at the OAC. To each and every guest who walked through the doors of the outreach center every morning. To Pastor Chad at Mercy Community Church. To my community at Mercy: Maggie, Jesus, Claude, Ivan, Dave, Terry, Claudia, Doug, Steve, Rick, Gunner, Adam, Melvin, Gerald, Kenny, Patrick, Tom, Harvey, and all the others. To those named and the many more unnamed, nothing would have been possible this year without you all. I am truly honored and blessed to be surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.

Lastly, a huge thank you to my family, friends, and church family back in Tallahassee, Fl for all the unconditional love and support. I would not be where I am today without you all. I love you all very much. Thank you for coming along for the ride this year!

Thomas Guthrie

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Called to Serve

It started as a “normal” Wednesday at the Central OAC. I use “normal” because most folks would not consider any of my days here in Atlanta normal. We are open from 9:00AM to 12:30PM Monday through Friday serving guests. At around 12:35 Chuck (the Executive Director) called me into his office and explained to me a situation that had come up. A guest has walked in off the streets to our center that had recently been released from prison. He was released on Tuesday from Augusta, GA with a bus ticket to Atlanta and a $25 debit card. For the confidentiality of our guest I will call him D while explaining my story. D had just finished a 17 year sentence and was told that he had 48 hours to report to his Probation Officer in Griffin, GA or he would violate his probation and be thrown back into prison. Let’s think about this for a second… 17 years in prison, no family contacts, bus ticket to Atlanta, ( an hour north of Griffin) and $25 ( when using an ATM the fee is $5, so now he is left with $20) and the task of reporting to his probation, sounds almost impossible to me.

Chuck asked me if I would take and drop off D in Griffin so he would be able to check into probation. I agreed that I would be willing to drive. Another volunteer at the OAC agreed to ride to Griffin with us. So we set out, to an unknown place, with unfamiliar people, and an undefined task ahead. On the hour trip to Griffin D expressed his gratitude towards me and the OAC for being able to help him. He was sure that he was not going to make it to his probation and feared that going back into the place he was just released from after 17 years was imminent. D explained that he had done wrong 17 years before, something that he will never be able to take back. He also explained how he had served his time and was a very different person today. Chuck gave me $20 to buy lunch for everyone in the car, and after along days work at the OAC I was ready for something to eat. As we passed a Burger King I asked D what he wanted to eat, he explained to me that he was too nervous to eat. “Funny you should ask that though, that Burger King that we just passed was the last place I had a meal before I went into prison.” 17 years ago, I was 7 years old, D was on his way to Griffin, GA to turn himself in, stopped to enjoy one more meal before life as he knew it would change drastically. My stomach was rumbling, but I respected D’s decision so we headed straight to the probation office.
We pull into an empty parking space at the probation office in Griffin. I explained to D that I would make sure that he got signed in before I would leave to head back to Atlanta. I had completed my assigned task of transporting D to his probation before 3:00PM, we got there before 2:00PM! D headed into the building as I opened the trunk to retrieve his belonging, as I carried his things up the stairs D was walking out of the building with a defeated look on his face. “The lady at the check-in window told me that I could not check into probation until I have a permanent address, she called my probation officer and he is giving me two hours to find one.”

This is where I had a decision, I could explain to D that I was sorry but I needed to get back to Atlanta with my bosses car, I was following the rules, I could blame it on someone else, I would feel bad but I had done all that I could. Or I could stay with D and try my best to walk with him, to be his advocate, when no one else in the world would. We are called as Christians, but also as human beings, to be many things in our lives, that Wednesday I was called to serve. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to be able to do, but I looked D in the eye with confidence and told him “We are going to get you through this.”

As I worked with D that day I learned firsthand how incredibly unjust our current prison system really is. The barriers that are placed on people recently released make it an almost impossible task to complete all requirements. It is a miracle that anyone is able to fulfill the requirements of parole and probation and keep from being thrown right back into prison. But that is for another day so let me get back into my story.

My first attempt was to talk to the lady at the probation check-in desk to see why she sent D away. The lady informed me that D needed a permanent address before he was able to check into probation. She handed D a post-it note with two places that she thought might be able to take him. One rooming house in Griffin and one in Thomaston, GA. Oh yea, she did not include the phone number to get in touch with either place.

The cell phone service in Griffin was not the best, I found one spot to make calls, in the middle of the parking lot, no shade, temperature was 98 degrees but felt like 120 in the middle of that probation office parking lot. I got in contact with Kimberly, my boss and Director of the OAC, to let her know what was going on. I explained the situation that had come up about D needing a permanent address. She informed me that she and Rene, the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, would call around Atlanta to see if any shelters would be able to take D in. Two hours, permanent address, foreign city, still very hungry!

I decided to call his probation officer to see if I could get any additional information. His secretary answered, “The Officer is off in the field, he will not be back today.” I asked if maybe she would be able to answer some questions I had. I spouted off about 10 questions ranging from “Does D need a permanent address today, or can he use a temporary?” to “I am looking for a shelter in Griffin, would you be familiar with any?” I am not sure if it was out of caring for the man I was working with or if she was just annoyed with all my questions but she transferred me to the Officer’s cell phone. When the Officer picked up, I explained who I was and the organization I was working for. I explained to him that I was working with D, and what I was trying to accomplish that day. The Officer was a very nice man, was more than happy to work with us. He explained that he was having a very busy day between two different cities, and he would do his best to get to Griffin by 4:30PM when the office closed. He told me that if we were able to find D a permanent address in Atlanta that he would be willing to transfer his probation to Fulton County.

I called Kimberly and Rene with the new information from the Officer but realized that I still had a lot of unanswered questions. So I went back into the probation office and realized that there was a new front desk lady. She was slightly more helpful, as I asked question after question. She eventually called his probation officer talked for awhile; when she hung up the phone she said that someone from the back would start working with D to complete some of his paper work. I continued to ask questions like, “Can D use a shelter as his address?” At this point she was done with me and told me to sit down and if I had any more questions I could ask the Officer. So then I asked another question, and she was serious about no more questions, with a raised voice she asked if I would sit down!

Throughout the day I had been in contact with Kimberly and Rene, I knew the addresses that we were going to try and use when they called D back. I had been in contact with his Probation Officer, so he knew where we were coming from. D really did not know anything at this point. So when the new Officer called D back and would not allow me to accompany him I felt very defeated. At this point it was around 3:45PM, I had been working nonstop on the phone and in person trying to figure out what I could do for D. After all that now D is in the back without any vital information that is going to help him from violating probation.

At around 4:00PM I called Kimberly and explained what had happened. I let her know that I was going to ask one more time if they would allow me to give D information but if not we were going to head back to Atlanta. So when I walked back into the office the first front desk lady that we had worked with was back. I explained that I had been in contact with my organization in Atlanta all day and that I was the only one who knew that information that D needed. The response is what really got me, “There is nothing that you can do, your job does not allow you to do much, and there is nothing that you can do! This is all Mr. D’s fault, he knew a month ago when we sent him an e-mail in prison everything that he was going to need to satisfy his probation requirements. The office closes in 30 minutes and Mr. D will not have completed his paperwork by then and you are going to have to leave. You have to realize that there is not much else you can do.”

This is where I had another decision to make. I could tell this lady how I really felt about her and most likely get kicked out of the probation office and leave D stranded alone in Griffin. Or I could practice a non-violent protest, what at Mercy we call starting the Revolution of Love. What that would look like is to sit there in the lobby and show that I was not going to give up on this man when “there is nothing else that I could do.” That’s exactly what I did!

My only hope now was that D’s Probation Officer who I had been in contact with would get there before I was kicked out at 4:30PM. The clock on the wall read 4:25PM and D was still filling out paperwork in the back, the Officer nowhere to be seen. As I waited in the lobby I met a young lady who I had a conversation with. She was very moved not only by what we were doing for D but for the way I handled the situation at the front desk. She informed me that “You can be sure that she would not talk to me like that and get away with it!” But then she said that all we can do is pray, which was absolutely right.

As the computers at the front desk were being shut down and the blinds were being closed on the windows it seemed like all hope was lost. But then through the back door walked D’s Officer at 4:28PM! He greeted me with a hand shake and led me into the back. There he completed the needed paper work with me and D. The only catch was that he needed D to return the next day to his office in Thomaston, GA to complete additional paper work and testing. But D had completed everything that he needed for probation that day; he was still a free man! On the way out the Officer said something that made everything we went through that day worth it. “D you should feel very lucky that you have these people here with you, not many people are lucky enough to have people care about them like these folks have cared for you.” I had only known this man for a couple of hours, but the Officer could see the way we cared for him was real. We all need an advocate, I am honored that I was able to stand by D that day!

On the way home, now close to 6:00PM, we stopped at a Wendy’s for dinner. At this point not having eaten all day I was getting slightly delirious. Here is the beautiful thing: We are all called to gather around the table, there is room for everyone. At the end of one of the craziest days of my life, we gathered around a table! Around the table was me, a recent college grad, left corporate business to spend a year serving other. Next to me was the other OAC volunteer a man here in the United States from Congo seeking Asylum. His story is one full of pain, suffering, rejection, but in the end full of God’s love. Then we have D, a man recently released from prison after 17 years, spent the day thinking he was on his way back. That day the three of us broke bread together, we came together from the north, south, east, and west to sit around that table. The bread was in the form of three Wendy burgers, extra greasy fries, and enough soda to fill a bathtub. We did not say much during the meal but D reminded us something very powerful, “This is the first meal that I have had outside of prison and it tastes great!” It had been 17 years since he was able to sit around a table outside of the prison walls and enjoy the gift of food. What a special moment it was to be enjoying that meal with him! I guess the moral of the story is you never know when you will be asked to Serve!

This has been a very special year for me. I have grown in many ways that I did not think were possible. I owe it all to the people I work with everyday! This is a very special story, but each and every day I hear all types of stories. So I want to thank all the people that have encountered this year!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Drum Off!

They say a picture tells a thousand words, what does a video tell? I am excited to share with you today some Sunday morning Mercy Music! Myself and Claude are teaming up on the Djembe in an old fashion drum off! Chad is providing the guitar and lyrics and Muletta is on the tambourine! Enjoy!

I was very lucky to spend fathers day in Tallahassee with my family and friends. It was great catching up with my church family at First Presbyterian on Sunday morning. Love You All!

Friday, June 1, 2012

"I Am At My End and Need Help"

Kimberly Parker, the Director of the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center writes a blog each day and ends with a prayer. She writes about stories and situations that occur at the OAC. On Tuesday I spent over three hours with a guest who had come to the end of her road. It was day full of emotion, frustration, anger (at those organizations who say that are "trying to help") and joy. Dealing with this situation showed me how much I have learned but also changed throughout this year of service. Below is the blog that she wrote about the guest I worked with:

May 29, 2012 … “I Am At My End and Need Help”

As I worked the front desk this morning, a lady came to the window and said, “I really need help to get off drugs. I am in a bad situation. I just watched my best friend overdose on drugs and die. In fact we were supposed to commit suicide together. She jumped off of a bridge. I am at my end and need help.”

We were well into adding names to the waiting list when she walked in. I created a space for her and asked Thomas to work with her. They called the Georgia Crisis Line and the guest was told that they could not work with her until she called the police about her friend. The guest did not want to call the police.

Thomas and I talked throughout the morning as he worked with this guest trying to help her find the assistance that she needed. We agreed that it was not our place to judge her situation, to doubt the story she told us. It was our place to try and assist her in getting the help that she needs. Thomas was persistent and called the Crisis Line back and spoke to a supervisor. They said they would send the Crisis Team to our site to evaluate the guest.

They came, evaluated, and transported her for help. Thank goodness!

We hear all kinds of stories each day. There are times when it is right to judge the situation and make decisions accordingly. Today was not a time to judge whether we were hearing the whole story or not. Bottom line for us was to meet the guest where she was today and to try and help her find the best possible help.

God, be with this guest. I know that she will not leave my mind for quite some time and I pray that she is on the road to recovery and healing. Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mercy Community Band

I want everyone to get a look into the opening part of a Sunday Worship at Mercy Community Church. In the video below I am playing guitar and on vocals, Pastor Chad is on the right of the screen playing acoustic guitar, Rick is playing electric guitar, and Steve is on saxophone. The song is "Woke Up This Morning" my personal favorite. Special thanks to Jimmy, the man behind the camera. I had fun adding some special effects on Windows Movie Maker. Hope you enjoy!!! Watch it full screen!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentines Day

Valentine’s Day:

A day filled with love, flowers, hearts, candy, stuffed animals, jewelry, fancy dinners, a significant other or maybe a new date.

Valentine’s Day is a special day for many people here in America, and why would it not be. The grocery stores is packed full of bright red flowers, heart shaped candy boxes, life sized stuffed bears, and enough helium balloons to lift a small child. Fresh cut roses are sold on every street corner. Reservations to any fancy restaurant are almost impossible to make. Elementary school kids share Valentine cards with a favorite cartoon character or movie star to each classmate. There is enough love in the air to fill a football stadium, the only worry we have on such a special day is, WHO WILL BE MY VALENTINE! The people in relationships this is an easy task. Those of us who need to find a date, Valentines is that perfect excuse to ask that special someone out on a date! It has always been a special day for me....

February 14, 2012:

This morning I awoke at 8:00am like any other day. The temperature was 38 degrees and it was raining. During the night the temp dropped below freezing and Atlanta experienced freezing rain. As I walked into work today the only thing that I could think about is how members of the Atlanta community had to sleep in these elements the night before. It was not until I sat down at my desk that I realized that today was Valentine’s Day. Today was much like any other day at Central Outreach and Advocacy Center. I worked with guests that were in need of transportation to work, clothing, emergency food, and Georgia ID’s. I helped one younger man today that was released from prison yesterday; he was in need of a GA ID. We talked for awhile about the struggles the State puts on him and others after being released into society. He was eager to obtain the proper State ID so he could get started in the reconstruction of his adult life. There was no balloons or hearts dangling from the ceiling today, really there was no mention of Valentine’s Day at all in our center. Today we passed out “gifts” that hopefully will continue to give, like we try and do each day we are open.

Today has helped me to put some of what I have learned and felt this year into context. As the outside world spends huge amounts of money on this holiday we have friends sleeping under freezing cold rain. When before I thought that not having a date on this day was the worst thing that could ever happen, I listened to the stories of men and women trying everything to get back on their feet but can’t because of the struggles to obtain proper ID. Or of a qualified man that can’t find any work because of his criminal record. Today Valentine’s Day was just another day for many people that are struggling on the margins. I feel truly blessed that I was able to spend this holiday with them.

Monday, February 6, 2012


"Vocation is where our greatest joy meets the world's greatest need."
-Frederick Buechner 

Last weekend I went to the Volunteers Exploring Vocation Conference in Norcross, Georgia. It was a three day, two night conference hosted by The Fund for Theological Education. There were around 50 volunteers from the Southeast region attending the conference. The event took place at the Simpsonwood Retreat Center located on the Chattahoochee River. 

Still to this day I am not sure how I got signed up for the conference, neither does my roommate Emily. Randomly we received e-mails about two weeks before the event giving us details on the conference. On Friday two weeks later we headed north for the weekend. 

One of the main reasons I decided to do a YAV year was the chance at living more "intentionally." The reason I put quotations around intentionally is because that word can have lots of different meanings. What I imagined when I signed up to live in an intentional Christian community was lots of discussions both deep and surface level, a tight community feel, bible study/readings, simple living, and community living. As a house I think that we were accomplishing only some of these things. So starting about a month ago I decided to find some ways of living more intentionally on my own. I started by meeting with Chad the pastor at Mercy Church at least once a week, usually we will meet twice. It was in that space that I verbalized the frustrations I was having with my year. As we continued to talk we decided that we would study a book together, the book Chad picked out was ‘Lifesigns’ by Henri Nouwen. That weekend I went to the VEV conference. 

At the VEV conference nothing life altering happened, I couldn’t even tell you much that we talked about that weekend. Not saying that in a bad way, I enjoyed the small group discussions and playing spades with other mission volunteers from the area. It is now when I look back on the weekend and see that it was the start to the shift in my year. It was during that weekend when I started to truly see that my search for vocation was not going to be easy. It was going to take some thinking outside of the box and challenging myself with different, uncomfortable things. Before taking part in the VEV conference I read ‘Let Your Life Speak’ by Parker J. Palmer and in that book it talks about vocation being a lifelong process. I get that; I know that I not close to finding my true vocation. I do know that things are changing inside and out, so I am happy for that. 

The things that I was hoping for in the beginning of the year finally started taking place. Our house community each Tuesday during our meeting is now studying a book; this month we are reading ‘St. Francis and the Foolishness of God.’ I personally don’t think that the book is great but each week it sparks group conversations where we can share, listen and learn from each other. Also last week I asked if our house could meet and talk about what was not going so good from the first part of the year. The meeting ended up lasting almost three hours but at the end I felt so renewed because as a community we discussed the hard stuff and came out better because of it. As a community we took a step to becoming more intentional and I hope that those discussions continue. 

We now have Megan who is a spiritual director come and meet with our community twice a month as a group and once a month individually. We have only had a few meeting with her at the house but each time it has been a very good experience. I believe that continually engaging in community activities like these are going to be very beneficial in creating a much close nit house community. During our first individual session we talked a lot about vocation and how I have been struggling to find mine. Megan helped me talk myself through some situations; I am very excited to continue to work with her throughout the rest of my time in Atlanta. 

My meetings with Chad have continued, recently we have been meeting two times a week. We meet after we close down Mercy on Thursday and then again before church on Sunday. We have now started reading and discussing the book ‘Lifesigns’ which has sparked some great conversations. I truly value Chad as a friend but also as a follower of Jesus in his work at Mercy. He helps me put certain parts of my life in perspective with the work I am doing now to the work that I came from. I always end my meetings with Chad feeling hopeful. I look forward to learn all I can from Chad and the community members that make up Mercy Church. 

I asked for change and I got it. I was looking for more and now as you can see I have a lot on my plate. My hope is that I now don’t take for granted the resources that are in front of me. I am excited to see where the rest of my year takes me! Nouwen talks a lot about moving from the house of fear to the house of love in the book Lifesigns. So this is the start of me being intentional about moving myself out of the house of fear and into the house of love! 

I look forward to getting to see the mission trip group from First Presbyterian Church who are coming to Atlanta to work with Chad and Mercy Church!!