By Julie Postma
West of majestic Mt. Hood, east of the scenic Oregon Coast, south of the picturesque Columbia Gorge, north of the luscious Willamette Valley, and surrounded on all sides by opportunities for adventure in the stunning and diverse wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
Food carts, hipsters and hydroflasks abound. A city that celebrates its distinctly unique culture, and seeks to push the issues with innovative, and creative solutions. A city that accepts any and all views.
I have lived an hour and a half from this Portland, Oregon my entire life. I have enjoyed all of the Portland-esque things that it offers including its shopping, entertainment, and unique food an innumerable amount of times, but I never understood the city. I never understood what it was about Portland that drew people in, what it was that kept people there, what it was that made Portland weird. After spending a month in Portland on a mission trip with CRU, I can finally say that I understand Portland; its draw, and its weirdness. And I can honestly say that I want to go back, but not for the same reasons as the majority of the country. I want to go back to Portland to engage in the work that God has started there; a work of redemptive love in an utterly dark and broken city that needs light, that needs Jesus.
The concept of acknowledgement was a key theme throughout my time in Portland. I find that the following quote from an email I wrote during the first week of the missions trip explains it well:
“From this revelation and a random homeless man on the street that simply said to me "thank you for acknowledging me", my prayer for the past week has been to acknowledge people for who they truly are (people that God desires to love and be reconciled with), and engage with them in the appropriate manner with this understanding. "Acknowledgement" has become my key word for this mission, because acknowledging my own brokenness as well as the brokenness of those around me has led me to have an overwhelming desire to share the love of Jesus with all.”
During my month in Portland thirty other CRU students and staff from all around the country and myself were able to engage with the city and acknowledge both its beauty and brokenness through its college campuses and its homeless population.
Three days a week we were on college campuses throughout Portland for four hours during the lively hours of summer term classes. During these hours both students and staff talked with many Portland students regarding their spiritual beliefs. I personally encountered a wide variety of beliefs and life experiences from the students that I talked with; ranging from a man who had spent four years as a homeless man traveling from Tennessee to Portland, a man who attended seminary school but lost his faith in God when he became a quadriplegic following a stroke, a man who grew up Mennonite but is now practicing shamanism, a girl and a guy who both grew up in the church but left when they became adults because they had never “felt” the love of God, and a man whose religion was the scientific method. No matter what walk of life these individuals came from, they all had two things in common: they all had experienced extreme brokenness, and they all desired to be heard. In the majority of the conversations that I had on campus once the student knew that I was there to listen, that I actually cared to know, and that I wasn’t expressly there to push my view of Jesus on them, it only took three, simple questions for them to open up and tell their life story to me, a complete stranger. I listened to dark stories about near death experiences, the death of loved ones, abandonment, feeling of worthlessness, and overall fear. Once you thought you have heard the darkest story, you would go to another person and hear an even darker one. Though it was emotionally taxing to hear all of this heavy brokenness from so many people, it is all worth it when I was able to acknowledge the brokenness that they had suffered through, acknowledge their value, and the offer them hope and love that can only be found in Jesus. Though no one that I talked to “accepted Christ into their heart” or “prayed the sinner’s prayer”, I do know that I planted seeds in the minds of all those people with whom I was able to talk. I know this not only because I was able to share my owntestimony of how Jesus redeemed me from my own personal brokenness which connected with the stories of others, but because of the light that came into the eyes of those I spoke with momentarily when I told them about this guy named Jesus that loves them fully and pursues them constantly. It really all comes down to this: so many people’s lives can be changed by simply asking questions about other’s lives, actually listening to them, acknowledging who they are and what they have been through, and then giving them love in return. An experience of true love by a stranger can plant a seed that causes them to want more of it, which will lead them right to the source of love: Jesus. We were simply planting seeds of love and trusting in God for them to grow. It was so simple, and yet so taxing, but oh so rewarding in the end.
During the days of the week that we were not having spiritual conversations on campus, we were at the Portland Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter in Portland. What I learned from my time with the homeless population was how wrong I have been in my thinking about them. I have always grouped the homeless population in my head as a group of druggies that make continual bad life decisions and therefore got themselves into this mess. Though a portion of the homeless population did fall into this definition, I was wrong about the other portion who had simply been hit hard by life. I met a lot of well-to-do people who had once had a steady job and house, but in a series of unfortunate events got sick, lost their job, couldn’t pay rent anymore, had no family to fall back on, and ended up on the street. These were genuinely good people who drew the short stick in life.
The first time that I left the shelter, I was sick to my stomach just thinking about my preconceived notions about these people and how poorly people like me have treated them. Like most people, when I walked by a homeless person in the past I would simply not make eye contact and ignore their presence completely, but had I ever thought of the ramifications of that happening to a person thousands of times? No. Boy did I see the ramifications as I sat down to dinner with these people who have been snubbed thousands of times, because when I would ask for their name or make eye contact with one of them, I would get this odd look of surprise from them that looked like a “are you actually talking to me?” face, because they hadn’t been genuinely talked to by someone who wasn’t homeless for a long time. I had been treating these people inhumanely even through short interactions with them, not because I was mean or rude, but because I treated them as if they were less than human. These people are human, in fact they are more than just human. They are creatures made in the image of God! I finally understood what that homeless man that told me, “thank you for acknowledging me”, was getting at. The least I can do, the least any of us can do, is give these people eye contact, a smile, or anything that says “I acknowledge you” as we walk by them on the street.
Overall, from acknowledging the brokenness of those stories that I heard on the campuses, to acknowledging the homeless population as people made in God’s image, to acknowledging the close-knit family of 30 students and staff that God brought together to weather the good, the bad, and the ugly during our month together, acknowledgment of the truth within a world of lies and disillusion was the main lesson that I learned during my time in Portland from the first week to the last. I am still learning how to apply this lesson of acknowledgment in my day to day life as I am trying to look at things through His truth instead of society’s standards. I still have a long road ahead of me, a life time in fact, in learning how to correctly acknowledge truth in a world full of lies, but here is what I have come up with so far in the weeks that I have been back: In a world where you are expected to have an opinion on every matter, be content with having no opinion. Instead operate off of the timelessness of truth, not the timeliness of an opinion for “a fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion”, but “blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold” (Proverbs 18:2 and 3:13-14).