By: Thomas Gutherie
A year and a half ago, as I packed all my belongings from my one bedroom apartment in Sarasota, FL, I realized life was about to look very different. After college, I had accepted a job as an assistant front office manager at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota and stayed in that position for six months. As my time at the Hyatt came to an end, I applied to be a volunteer with PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV)program in Atlanta, GA.
I had no idea what would come from the experience: I was going from a four-star hotel to an outreach center. From offering hospitality to millionaires to offering it to those who have nothing. From working in a business suit to working in ripped jeans and a t-shirt. From worshiping in a church to worshiping in a night shelter.
I was a qualified business school graduate and was ready to solve problems and help people in need for a year. I planned to be a committed volunteer, but I was sure that I would return to the corporate world after my year of service.
When I started the program, I was a lot like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. At that time, my prayers sounded something like this: “Thank you, God. Thank you for not making me like other people: the homeless, drug addicts, mentally ill, prostitutes, criminals. I mean, God, I gave up my salaried position and 401K to come help THESE people in need; I truly am a great person, aren’t I!”
My YAV placement took me to work on the margins. You might ask what does that mean? The term “marginalized” refers to the process in which individuals and entire communities of people are systematically blocked from rights, opportunities and resources, like housing, employment, health care, civic engagement, democratic participation, and due process. These resources are generally available to members of society and are key to social integration.
Mercy is not like most other agencies that deal with homelessness. All are welcome; as they say at Mercy, “We will meet you wherever you are.” Mercy is unique in that grace is offered to each and everyone. For example, many of the members at Mercy have been banned from other service providers around Atlanta.
I had a lot of frustrations and questions about what I was really doing in Atlanta when I first began. Things were not going the way that I thought they were going to go, the YAV house community was falling short of my expectations, work was good but repetitive, and I was not really seeing any changes in myself.
Eventually I made the decision to be intentional about all my interactions and decisions. It was then that, my year truly started. During this time I sought out people and ideas that would force me to change. It was in this time, there on the margins, that my working with the homeless became much more then a job. Over the course of the year my work with the marginalized became my passion and my calling.
It was in the beginning stages of striving to become more intentional that I truly immersed myself into the Mercy community. Every week I would look forward to the time I would get to spend with the caring, laughing, struggling, loving community of people at Mercy. The stories they shared of struggles, brokenness, and pain were always honest and from the heart, not holding anything back. It was the pure honesty of the community that allowed me to imagine another way of being.
Mercy is a place of transformation. Not only for those dealing with homelessness, but anyone who walks through the gates: volunteers, interns, youth groups, and mission groups.
One cold morning a young woman came in off the streets with a guitar strapped on her back and hot pink hair. It was just like any other morning at Mercy, a mass of us sat on the patio and shared hot coffee, bagels, bread and homemade jelly. Later, after prayer and
Bible study, we gathered in a circle for music time where we loudly sang and played our favorite songs using guitars, djembe, tambourines, shakers, and pots. It happened that this day our new friend decided to join us and eventually asked to share an original song with the group. I could tell she was nervous by the shakiness of her hands and voice. In the middle of her song she left abruptly and fled for the bathroom in tears.
When she returned, she started packing her guitar, looking to get out as quickly as she came in. “Don’t go! Stay here with us and play some more,” the group encouraged. Her demeanor instantly changed and she sat back down in the circle. At one point, near the end of the day, she even told me that she had been looking for a church family for most of her life and today she had finally found one here at
Mercy. When she left that day she was filled with joy and full of the Holy Spirit. I was completely blown away by the power of simple, genuine hospitality that Mercy offers each and every day.
Re-engaging this story months later, Chad helped me see that Mercy offered the same love, hospitality, grace to me as the girl.
I finally recognized my own brokenness, which allowed me to start the hard work of becoming whole. Just like the Pharisee in the gospel reading, it is very easy to identify the brokenness of others, especially those living on the margins.
I realized that we are all just as broken as those living on the margins, though I, and many of us, work hard to hide it. It is in our brokenness that all of us can begin the journey of healing. My prayer sounds now more like that of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, for I realize how broken and full of sin I truly am.”