Sunday, February 15, 2009

Atlanta Real

We arrived at the Atlanta Union Mission. The road in was incredible. I’m used to seeing barns as tall buildings. And even in places like Harrisburg or Greenville, the city overwhelms me, and they only have a few big towers standing around. Atlanta kept going. And going.

As we navigated the crowded streets and intersections on the way to the Mission, with Norwood at the front, my mind kept going back to the prayer room at Twelve Stone. There was a chair with a table beside it, and a red, leather-bound book lying on top. Sometimes curiosity is a good thing.

Inside were prayers—prayers of joy, prayers of pain, prayers of praise, prayers of intercession. It was something I’d yearned to see without knowing what it was I’d longed for. To see into the words and minds and hearts that had written Abba the same way I’d been doing since my high school days. A journal of confession. Of question. Of hope.

Beauty and rage, anger and tears, wars within and lies without—these feelings marked the pages of broken people. I use the word beauty first because it holds significance over the others, because it is in our brokenness that we cry to be made whole again.

There was love. There was redemption. There was grace, and thankfulness, and encouragement. Revelation. Repentance. Restoration. And grace.

Grace is what I saw this weekend.

There aren’t enough words and there may not be enough room on my hard drive to express what all went on at the Mission. All I know is that I felt more peace there than I have the last year and a half of my existence.

The Westin Building loomed in the distance. I could see it through the window of the dining hall. It looked so far away. Casey said that there was a two-story, rotating restaurant at the top, where meals at their cheapest run around thirty dollars per person. The contrast was undeniable. We were a world apart from where we’d been.

I was glad.

I washed dishes that night with Mike, Michael, and “C Po”. The latter said his name several times to me, and “C Po” was the closest discernable English I could make out. Still working out my “northernese”, I guess.

I noticed something as guys came through the line. They would all load up on salt and pepper. I’m not exaggerating when I say they loaded their plates with it. And they put it on everything.

For some reason, I don’t think I can forget that image.

Some guys threw their trash in the trash can, and a barrage of soupiness flew from their trays as they banged them against the side of the can. Then two guys came up and reached down into the rancid pit and withdrew a few scraps of half-chewed, half-saturated pieces of bread and quickly forced them down.

I don’t think I can forget that, either.

We talked some with Lebaron Brown. An addict himself for more than thirty years, he talked about the processes that went on in the mission. We heard later about his story, how he’d been through the program eight times before making it through. I began to understand why everyone looked to him for leadership, in full trust and respect. He was their Superman, their success story, their Moses. He’d seen the wasteland, the desert, and he’d come back. Now he was freeing his people. And I have no doubt in my mind that it is because of his testimony that so many of them had come to know the Lord.

He talked about the fight against homelessness as being a battle against the powers and the demons, and not against the homeless themselves. White, Black, Hispanic—they were all welcome. Straight, gay, sick, crippled, druggie, alcoholic, and mentally ill—they were all family in this place. The powers that they fought were greater things, but lesser things. The bottle. The needle. And even the city itself. “They don’t like that we put Bibles on the beds, but we refuse to take ‘em off. That’s who we are,” said Mr. Brown. Keith Lawson, a counselor on staff who’d been through hell and back himself and who had now been a source of hope in this place for the past seventeen years, put it this way: “It starts with the dialogue.” He stressed the importance of relationship. Of giving up and not just giving. Of treating others with dignity and not just therapy. Of showing Christ and not the diploma he’d worked hard to put up on his office wall. “If it’s gonna be about the Cross,” he said, “then it’s gotta be about the Cross.”

The NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting was incredible. Addicts were leading other addicts. Blind leading the blind? I hardly think so. More like those with poor vision being given new eyes. More like the blindness being found outside the walls of that Mission.

I never learned the names of those in the meeting that night, though I recognized a few. “C Po” was one of them.

The man up front read from “the Big Book”—a twelve step program that confronted the destructive nature of addiction and led to repentance and surrender and, ultimately, healing. Men told their stories to each other without regard. They held nothing back. This had not been the first time I’d seen such an “open forum” truly be open. When To Write Love On Her Arms came to Clemson a semester back, I was astonished at the sheer honesty of those crowded in the small coffee shop where Jesus had chosen to present Himself. Some of the words spoken at that time made up one of the most profound presentations of the gospel I’d ever heard.

The NA meeting was similar. Broken men with pasts I’d never comprehend met face to face with God and His Word. They ran to it without hesitation. Tommy told me later that a few guys he’d struck up a conversation with actually started quoting Scripture to him. I heard a few guys do it as well, and it startled me at first. Then I heard that those three men had asked to pray for Tommy.

“An atheist is someone don’t believe in nothin’ higher than himself,” the man up front said. Who taught him that? Who taught any of these how to reason? Who taught them how to believe?

Truly, the question is this: how do we believe without being taught?

We have grown up with everything we need, and most of what we want. And we have been taught, over and over again, how Christ died for us and saved us from our sin. But I think we often miss the point. What sin? What have I done that has been so terrible? Indeed, the Scripture is proven true: he who is forgiven little loves little; he who has been forgiven much, loves much. These men were not hopeless. They had more hope in their faces than I typically see on the faces of many in Sunday service. A stark contrast, a striking difference. But that’s because this was real.

These men knew of the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

These men weren’t well educated. They weren’t eloquent. They cussed and smelled and didn’t have many teeth. But they possessed something real. They understood relationship, because they had also understood abandonment. The world had forgotten them. They themselves had been lost in its deadly swath. But now they knew of grace, and of a mindset of passion. Not one of those I met who were in the program ever frowned at me. They were all very friendly, and very open. Very open. More than all of that though was a mentality of hope. They saw God in people. They never saw faults. Cracks in the pottery, definitely. But they all knew One who could repair them. They were such servants. They had such humility—the thing I often long for more than anything. And I knew why, as I listened to the man up front speak. “It’s the love of the Spirit here, and that’s a beautiful thing. I didn’t seen it before, but now I do.” Truly, the faith of these men humbled my soul.

At the end of the meeting we all stood up, joined hands, and said the Lord’s Prayer.

And we really said it.

I can’t write this without saying something about Jimmy. He was probably the favorite of the group, and that made sense, since we stayed up late in the dorm talking with him. A lot of what he said I won’t repeat; some of the city lingo is a bit out of place for writing.

Matt asked him how many years he’d been there. He laughed and replied, “Years? No. Days, man, days. None of us got years. We got days.” He spoke with such truth in his voice, but he never came across as the hopeless, angered individual I believed he once had been. “You gotta earn this bunk,” he said, slapping the mattress. “A man come in here with nothin’. He come out established. I needed those rules. I needed someone to tell my — when to get up and when to lay down.”

There are many more pages I could fill about the night at the Mission. Even more are the stories I could reflect upon concerning the conversations we had in sessions with individuals across the board. So many ministries, all working for the sake of the Cross. A piece of reality I had often only been able to dream and read about. And I suppose in the future I will. For now, this is but one word out of the story. Simplicity and complexity mix in this world of urban mission.

We departed after lunch on Sunday. A weekend in reality. A night in the shelter that I’d never forget. But they are still there. We go back to write papers, read journals, and to think about what we’ve seen and heard. But they are still there. We go back to classes, the cafeteria food, and chapel services. But they are still there. We go back to warm beds, full stomachs, and personal computers. They stay there. We go back to family and friends, classmates and professors, and a place to call home. But they stay where they are. In the real.

My prayer? That some of that real has come home with us to stay. A mindset of mission—to each other, to the world. A mission of truth, hope, and love. A truth found in Christ. A hope found in the Cross.

Love found in God’s Church.


  1. We can have that same experience 25 miles from the campus at the Greenville Rescue Mission. Anyone that is interested in getting involved let me know.

  2. Ryan,
    Thanks for letting us see Atlanta and the people at the Mission through your eyes. Your words were so descriptive that I was standing there with you at the trash can and watching the men pile on the salt and sugar.

    The Atlanta time was very unique because it was your engagement with strangers - with people that God put in your path - not mine, nor for others - your connections - even if I met the same people - you had such different conversations and heard different things.

    We could go to Greenville, as Matt has suggested, but it would not be the same. Any opportunity, in any city, is valuable and I hope we all look for additional places where we can visit, serve, and learn. But each city, each ministry in the city, is unique - because of the people there.

    Matt has a passion for Greenville and Central - let's join him in that passion.

    What city is God calling you to?