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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


  1. Thomas thank you for sharing your year with us. It is quite a powerful blog. Love you.


  2. What an adventure! You were really brave to take this on and I'm glad you shared it with us. Love, Robyn

  3. Hi Thomas,

    Really awesome.

    Thank you for shareing!!