For everyone that does not yet know me, my name is Afton and I am another member BAyUPs CityTeam for the summer…but around here people mostly call me “Red”.
This term was coined for me by the head chef of City Team’s kitchen when he figured the name red would be easier to remember me by due to the mass amount of red curly hair atop my head. The name “Red” takes on many additions depending on who you talk to, but sister red, daughter red, niece red, and cousin red are all more than sufficient for me. That’s just how it goes here, we’re all family in one way or another, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The fact is that these people who I now call family were people I hadn’t even met as of 3 weeks ago. In fact, I don’t think anyone on our team had any idea what we were getting ourselves into before we came here. It feels like yesterday my friends and family were asking me the same questions like “How do you not even know your address? Where do I send these letters? What do you mean your first blog wont be for the first 2 weeks? How will I know you’re not dead? What even is city team?”. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little nervous when it was mere days before my departure and I still didn’t have the answers to these questions. All I knew is that I would mainly be working with men in rehabilitation. I had visited loved ones in rehabilitation centers before, but those were top of the line care facilities that my family trusted. But a non-profit all-mens rehab center in downtown Oakland? My poor family were getting bruised knees over hitting their prayer mats for me when I left.
In some ways, I got exactly what I was prepared for. People came in for recovery only to leave weeks, days, even hours later. It was messy, heartbreaking, and very hard to see. But the thing was, this is what I knew I would see, so as sad as it was, my aching heart was not the least bit surprised.
What I wasn’t ready for was something discussed by my dear friend and staff leader a few blogs ago about “mutual conversions”. This is described as a situation where both parties bring something valuable to the table. For BAyUP, this is where we as missionaries from all across our campuses are here not to just give and observe, but to see the sometimes hidden gems of what those we serve actually have to offer us.
This, my friends, is where God has completely rocked my world in City Team this summer. I laugh at the ignorant me that entered into this thinking “I need to be ready to give all that I can to these people, because they need my light and encouragement more than I need a fun summer”. Oh, how God was laughing to himself as I said these self-righteous words, I’m sure he was thinking to himself, “wait and see my child…wait and see”. I was coming off of a challenging year physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I entered in praying desperate prayers for God to overflow my cup so it could pour into others, so when I started my first day at city team I was in a silent panic about how I felt only half full at best.
The good news is, that was just the beginning. When we entered in the men started off by serving us delicious food they themselves had cooked. I looked around, these guys didn’t look like they were struggling…they were laughing. Was I at the wrong address? I was greeted at the table by a character by the name of Danny, and he presumed to be lively in our conversation about sports, hobbies, and music. Before you knew it, we who came to serve were the ones serving us. We would mention that we didn’t have mugs, and without asking we would be receiving mugs delivered to our apartment not but 30 minutes later by some of the guys who overheard us in the hallway (did I mention City Team houses us in separate apartments on the second floor of the building?). I could tell countless stories like this. We had to start to be careful of what we mentioned in conversation because we didn’t want to overwork the men that were joyful to give us the shirts off their back. What a world we live in here at City Team, that you have to be careful of what you say for fear of someone over-serving you amidst a crazy busy schedule. I laugh to think how we are getting better treatment than a 5 star hotel with 24/7 room service, and my family was originally wondering how well I would get to eat.
But these were just added icing to the cake of the real blessings I am finding here at City Team. It was when I finally started to get time to hang out with these guys and get their stories that my mind started to be blown on a daily (if not hourly) basis. One of many of these experiences was had when I was sitting next to a guy named Oren who is in his 2nd or 3rd month of the year long program. I was honored enough to be able to hear some of the jaw dropping wisdom he had to share when we started talking about why he chose such a time intensive facility for recovery.
“I’m here to become a man. I mean a real man, not just what I can get away with on the surface. I never really learned how to be a man growing up, I skipped so many steps along the way. That’s why I’m here, to go back and learn those steps I missed. I’m here to become a real man” he said.
I mean, woah…wait…what?
Like, what just happened? Is this real life? He said it so strongly, but even as he said it I knew he was simply speaking from the heart, and had no idea how heavy the weight of his words touched me. I was floored. I rarely hear such wisdom from even my most esteemed college educated peers and leaders. Yet here sitting before me was a humble construction worker, 60 days sober with dreams of getting his GED. I couldn’t help but sit back and think “Man, this guy has life more figured out than most anyone I know”.
It’s so silly when I think about my mentality 3 weeks ago to now. I thought I was coming here to gain material to maybe even give a large group talk to my fellowship back home…but here I was meeting people I wanted to recruit to give a talk to my fellowship instead of me!
One of the even crazier parts is, Oren is just one of these wisdom-bearing men at City Team, and oh my goodness there are too many to count on both hands. I now crave the times where I simply get to sit and soak in what they have to say about life, loss, pain, hope, and redemption. They quote scripture in every day conversations like my friends quote the movie Bridesmaids. They start their day at 4:30 in the morning and sometimes their heads don’t hit the pillow until 10:30 that night. I will walk into one of the break rooms to see them sitting down, pouring over scriptures and studies based on the 12 steps to recovery.
They have bad days, no doubt. The guys here are more than honest with us about their struggles, and some even claim that without sharing these things they rob themselves of getting the help and support they need. But the strength they find within and in their savior leaves all of us from the outside looking in no excuses when it comes to our own paths of pain and how to struggle, yet struggle well.
I was so blind by my own thoughts before coming here that I hadn’t even thought there was this much healing for me and for our whole BAyUP team here at City Team. The good news is, I still get to serve. The guys are so thankful for us here, and let us know how much help we are. They thank us for our hard work hands on, as well as the kind words and encouragement we bring to their lives, whether we do it consciously or just by being who we are. It’s such a beautiful picture of Shalom, mutual conversions. We all bring our experiences, hopes, and strengths to the table, and they all combine and come together for exchanges that uplifts and encourages both parties and leaves all of us that much closer to God by the end of it.
It was such a shift from what I was expecting that I cannot help but still praise God even as I type for everything he is doing here at City Team. It’s a place of healing for everyone that is willing and goes through it’s welcoming doors. For me it has been a reawakening of certain parts of my soul that I didn’t even know were sleeping.
I have mentioned my prayers of wanting to be overflowed in order to have leftovers to give and pour into others, and how I fell short of that goal when I was arriving at City Team. It’s wonderful to pray these things and to pour into others out of excess. But what about when you come to the table with your cup only half full, like mine was? Or what about all you have in your cup is a few droplets of leftover tears from the pain life has hurled your way? Do you decide to pour out a little, but conserve some for yourself? Or do you simply not come to the table, thinking it’s not enough to make any sort of difference?
This is where I am finding Jesus the most, in bringing my lack of fulfillment to the places I serve, to pour out what I have only to receive that much more. It’s humbling, even a bit painful, to realize you have nothing left to give, and what was in your cup wasn’t even that much to begin with. However it is in these times that, for me at least, the space opened up to let go and let God his way. It’s vulnerable, uncomfortable, but also the most malleable place to let Jesus shape me into a new creation.
I share these things because they were the replacement of the lie I tell myself (and dare I say many of us tell ourselves) that if you cannot bring a full cup to the table it’s better if you don’t show up at all. The fact is, serving when it hurts can sometimes reap even more of the healing benefits, but it also needs to be with done honestly and with your heart in the right place. It was serving while suffering in silence that can kill that healing momentum power at times.
I share these things not wishing to only tell part of my experience, but to share the hope and joy that Jesus has brought me, and all of us, with our time here. I will also use this last bit of space to thank those of you who helped get us here, with financial, prayer, emotional and spiritual support. Keep praying, God is not done with his work here in Oakland, in BAyUP, and in each of our hearts!
I would also like to end by telling those of you asking “But what about me? I need healing, but I’m not at City Team or BAyUP.” Well my friends, good news! Jesus’s healing power is for everyone, and everywhere! Praise the Lord! Now go out and get real with someone, and let them get real with you, you’ll never see the mutual conversion blessings coming!