This story was told at Storyboard’s first annual advent service, held at Open Table Community in Chamblee, GA. The theme of the morning was ‘word made flesh’, and stories, songs, and the taking of communion were all related to that topic.
This piece was written and read by Ryan. The full text of the piece is below.
Video was shot with two DSLR cameras on tripods, and two point-and-shoot roaming cameras.
If you have had a similar experience, or if you have another story you would like to tell, we would love to hear from you.
Camera Operators: Tim Rhodes, Ian North
Sound: Tim Rhodes
Video Editing: Tim Rhodes
Graphics: Josh Feit
A story by Ryan Metzler //
On an early Saturday morning in late September of 2012 I found myself sitting on the bench on the far end of the fields outside of Silverbacks Stadium. I had been living in Atlanta for about two months now, and Ian has invited me to watch the soccer team he coaches play one of their weekly Saturday morning skirmishes. Directly in front of me and slightly to the right sat our team’s goal, protected by Gumz, the keeper.
As I wondered how he got that nickname, there’s a commotion on the far side of the field, and Gumz gives a shout:
“AAY! David! No!”
Across the field our striker David has a foul called on him and has responded by trying to throw a punch at someone on the other team. After trying to remove him from the field before he is ejected, Ian sat down next to me, beaming.
“It’s great, man!” he said, apparently serious. “The team has come such a long way since I started here!”
“Yeah?” I ask.
“Yeah man. Before, the fights would break out between our own teammates. Now they’re fighting the other team.” Progress, apparently.
This was the first time I clearly remember meeting Guzman. He was sitting on the other end of the same bench as me, head between his hands during the fiasco. Afterwards, he asked me if he could bum a ride home.
As it turned out, giving guys a ride to and from soccer games became one of the few things I looked forward to every week. Moving to a large city where I know no one, and living in a neighborhood where my skin color and language makes me a minority, I was set up well to feel a profound sense of loneliness.
I came to Atlanta from Lynchburg, Virginia. I moved there to attend a large Christian university, which seemed to have done a great job of replacing my faith with fear, cynicism, anger, and a bitterness that I continue fighting against to this day.
I was never able to reconcile how this institution could glorify how well it was doing financially while on the other side of the highway most of the city lived below the poverty line. And I was never able to worship in or commit to an institution whose leaders seemed way too excited about punishing anyone for the slightest wrongdoing.
And so haunted by a past I never want to revisit, I left Lynchburg and moved to Atlanta where the only connection was the brother of a former bandmate who was doing this community development thing. If there was any truth to the faith I had once known, it seemed that I would have to find it by taking the very basic tenets of what Jesus said, and take them as literally as possible: Love your neighbor, care for the poor, the widow, the forgotten, and help those in need.
Pretty soon Saturday mornings became the only ritual I openly chose to abide by. Wake up early, make a pot of coffee, and then either walk to Dresden Park or drive to Silverbacks Stadium to watch our team play. Cheer for them when they won, and awkwardly offer condolences when they didn’t.
Guzman, Gumz, and a few others would often ride along to and from these games, and when I sold my car and bought the truck, Guzman was quick to point out that besides the lack of air conditioning, broken speedometer, rust patches on the frame, overheating radiator, and broken seat belts, the truck could use some improvements.
“yo man, you know what this thing needs? It needs flames. You need to paint flames on the side of the truck. And paint it purple. Then maybe you could actually pick up chicks with it.”
Ouch. I rebutt: “Yeah maybe, but let’s be honest the truck can hold at most one other person. So you probably should say I can pick up chick with this thing.”
Standing on the sidelines, Ian and I would often create a mock commentary about the game as it unfolded. At some point, as we weaved back and forth between jokes and serious observations, Ian pointed out Guzman’s skill on the field.
“He’s so good but he has so little confidence when he has the ball.”
And it was true. As soon as anyone says anything critical he would collapse, and his shots would be off for the rest of the game. I started to see in Guzman what was true of myself not too long ago: Low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, and a crippling anxiety that manifested itself at all the worst times. There were plenty of other players on the team that needed critical feedback, but we realized then that the only coaching Guzman needed was encouragement. As he walked off the field I said something like “Hey man, those were some amazing shots!”
“Yeah but they all missed” he mumbled, walking past me without pause.
“So? You took them!”
A few months later, the team would dissolve. With more than half of the guys graduating from high school, they no longer qualified for the league we were in. I sat through the graduation ceremony feeling apprehensive about the future. As we posed for pictures with the guys, I wondered if this was the last time I’d see them. After graduation would they skip town like I was prone to do? And could I blame them if they did?
Soon after that I would start dating M. And a few weeks after that we broke up. For reasons I still cannot understand, something about being in a relationship brought back the waves of fear and anxiety I felt in Lynchburg. In those few short weeks, I found myself back in the all-too-familiar depression I kept trying to leave behind. I tried and failed to explain this to her. How it was in no way her fault and that this was something that I had to sort out myself. She told me that, yes, I could break up with her, but only on the condition that I see a counselor. I tried to tell her that I had seen a counselor in Lynchburg and it was awful and please can that not be a requirement? But she wouldn’t budge.
For the next few months I met regularly with David, the pastor of Open Table Community Church, the only church I could stomach attending in Atlanta. We would meet over coffee or sandwiches and talk about our lives. We would try to share jokes and anecdotes but inevitably the conversation would get serious.
“Do you know that people can change?” David sits across from me at the sandwich shop. “It’s true. I read it in a book”, he continues. He talks about the psychology of this seemingly innocuous fact and patiently describes how, given time and conscious effort, personalities and dispositions can change. “That’s good news, right? You’re not doomed!”
“I know this seems simple but I’m not convinced you believe it. And you need to. If nothing else, believe that you can change.”
David and I would end up having this exact conversation for about three months straight. And I think the hardest thing for him to understand was how someone could desperately cling to the idea of community development if they couldn’t accept that the people in these communities had the capacity to change. And I have to admit, that is a very compelling argument.
This past November, two years after those meetings with David, a group of us attended the national conference of CCDA, the Christian Community Development Association. When I heard the full rundown of attendees I fell back against the wall and yelled “This is going to be awesome!” In addition to the Refugee Beads staff, we were bringing a group of youth from the neighborhood. Susanna, Vanessa, Gerardo, Gumz, and Guzman joined the full-time staff to head to Memphis, Tennessee for the conference.
The morning we left, Guzman and I were loading the van.
“Yo you gotta check out my new mixtape man. It’s fire.” This was the first of many colloquialisms I would become intimately familiar with. For the next hour, Guzman kept talking about his mixtape, how great it was, and how he couldn’t wait to play it. I was driving the first shift, and so Guzman eagerly jumped in the passenger seat, where he immediately put his headphones on and fell asleep.
Later, we were preparing to leave the rest stop when Guzman piped up with another more endearing colloquialism.
“I feel the same way man, but I can’t say that word”, I said hesitantly
“Because.. I’m white. White people can’t say that word.”
A chorus of voices erupted from the van.
“Yo whatchu talking about, Ryan? You’re Hispanic!” Miguel says.
“Yeah, you’re one of US” Susanna adds.
“I told you.” Guzman says with a grin and another laugh. “No one cares about skin color, you our boy.”
This would turn out to be one of the most profound and fond memories I have of CCDA. The rest of the conference I felt the weight of responsibility for our group, the pressure of being around a lot of other Christians, and the stress of long hours in crowded rooms and hallways. Guzman must have experienced similar feelings. For being so excited about the conference beforehand, he spent a majority of it quiet, aloof, and unwilling to have any real conversation. Excited for him to experience CCDA as it should be, with an open and excited mind, this made me angry, closed, and most definitely not excited.
On the drive home, I opted for the role of navigator instead of driver, and so I started guiding Miguel to the highway. I instructed him to make a right, and he instead made what we came to call a “Miguel right”. In that he turned left. Feeling the whole week’s worth of pent up frustration I lost my temper and said some harsh things to Miguel. I yelled. At a friend of mine, for making a mistake that costed us all of about 30 seconds.
I consider Miguel a close friend and I spent the next two hours sitting in the driver’s seat wondering how badly I damaged our friendship, and what I can say to apologize. I wondered if Hispanics are prone to anger and if, since I am an honorary one of them now, I have an excuse for my actions.
At some point during the eight-hour drive, the conversation took a serious turn. Guzman tells us how he feels angry all the time. How he feels this rage sometimes and he doesn’t know what to do with it. My mind races as all the anger he feels syncs up with my own. I think back to the last two years of concentrated effort to change and find myself turning around to face the entire group.
“Hey. You gotta believe you can change, guys. All of you. I know that sounds stupid right now, and I know that you are experiencing some really dark stuff, but trust me. You need to start here”. I look at everyone in the car and tell them that they are capable of changing.
“But everything’s so dark” someone says. “I think everyone in this car is depressed.”
“Not me.” I say. “I was. Two years ago I really was. And sometimes I still am. But it’s gotten a lot better. People can change and I’m telling you it sounds so stupid but you need to start believing it. You are going to have to live in that head of yours for the rest of your life, you might as well make it a comfortable place to be.”
I’m loading the dishwasher at the After School Program. Now, on Tuesdays, I leave my stressful job as a software developer and attempt the even more stressful task of teaching 1st-5th graders to read and write and do their times tables. Working in my community, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to follow Jesus. We’ve just fed close to 30 kids Macaroni and Cheese and are now attempting the arduous task of cleaning up after them. Guzman volunteers on Tuesdays as well, and I always look forward to the moment when the chaos finally settles and we can banter back and forth. Today though, his tone is a bit different.
“Yo Ryan”, he says as I stack the dishes. “I think I’m on, like, the 20-year plan or something”
“20 year plan?”
“Yeah man, I figure by then maybe I’ll have this whole God thing figured out.”
I laugh. “Hey, you and me both, Guz”
Even now I don’t know quite what Guzman believes. In a way I’m not sure he does either. But I’m not worried. I see enough of myself in him to trust that these things will start to work themselves out.
And I hope to be around in 20 years, when Guzman has God figured out. Maybe he can teach me a few things.