Reflecting on lessons learned in Portland

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I’ve been back in Texas, on campus and back at work for about a month now, and God keeps teaching me things I thought I was supposed to learn a month and a half ago. This past summer in Portland was long, and it was hard, but it was so good.

shelby byrd130Shelby ByrdI’m still processing things I had no idea I ever would encounter, and I’m probably going to keep realizing things about this relatively small chunk of my life for years and years to come. Of all the countless lessons God has taught me, here are just a few.

• Community is difficult but worth it.

For two months, I lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath, 1950s-style house with my 10 housemates. That alone made people extremely curious! I learned all-too-quickly it wasn’t going to be easy. It was hectic to attempt to coordinate 11 schedules and keep everyone’s stuff in their own piles and figure out who was going to shower and when. We stepped on each other’s toes, both figuratively and literally, quite a bit. 

Honestly, I’m an extremely selfish person, and that’s something to really face when you can hardly even claim your own bed. I found a lot of my own sinfulness was brought into the open when living in such a tight community. We hurt each other sometimes, but thanks to the grace of God, we loved each other deeply. Community is one of the best ways Christians have to show the very nature of God to the world. So many of our neighbors and random friends were able to experience just a taste of the love only found in Christ. Our unity under Christ was the best witness we had to offer.

• To love is to abandon our prejudices.

I was blessed to be able to serve in such a creative city. God provided an amazing opportunity I hated so much at the beginning. I came across a weekly artists’ breakfast and attended during our first week with another girl on the team. When we got to the diner, I was terrified. This group was populated completely by about 10 women in their late 60s who have been making art professionally way longer than I’ve been alive. As an aspiring artist, I obviously was completely intimidated and wanted to never come back. But we did—every week for two months—and experienced some of the most God-ordained conversations all summer. I realized after that first meeting I had been holding a prejudice against the elderly I didn’t even know I had. 

If God had sent me to a group filled with hip, young artists in their 20s, what would I even be doing? Is not much to love those who are just like you. If heaven is a place where people from every nation and tongue will come together to worship the one true God for all eternity, there’s no time and no benefit of holding any prejudice against those whom God has created differently than yourself. To be a Christian, and to be loved by God, does not equate looking like me.

• Stories are powerful.

There was a very short-lived project I attempted this summer of setting up a giant chalkboard on the sidewalk and asking people if I could attempt to draw their hopes and dreams. It sounds super cheesy, but for the one afternoon I did it, it worked! People’s stories are special and interesting and sacred, because no one can discredit your own personal experience. By truly listening to the tales of people’s lives, it becomes so obvious how God has been pursuing them. 

God brings us to the people he does for a reason. God brought me to new friends who were going through the same things I was, except without Jesus. There were so many times I just wanted to argue and debate with people. Instead, God would tell me to just start telling stories. Stories are so powerful because they invite the listener inside the journey of God’s faithfulness. I felt like such a pathetic dork when I cried in front of a group of teenagers a lock-in when I told them about my story. I could have given them so many statistics and theological vocabulary lessons, but that’s not what they needed. They just needed to get a small taste of God’s goodness.

• My effectiveness in service is not dependent on how I feel about it.

I felt so ineffective much of this summer. I would look around and see all the glorious things God was doing in the lives of the rest of my team and compare it to all the things I was not seeing in my own. For about two weeks, literally all I did was buy about $30 worth of spaceship stickers and walked around the city giving them out to every homeless person I ran into. I had exactly zero spiritual conversations during that time, but I sure got to hear a lot about weed. I had put all these ideas in my mind of what it meant to “live missionally” and none of those really lined up with what my life was looking like. I wanted to look so much like the ideal “Super Christian,” but that just wasn’t going to be the case. 

Those dumb little stickers could have meant the world to someone. I could have been the only one to look that person in the eyes that day and to ask them how they were doing. I went to Portland arrogantly wanting to prove God to people and lead some huge parade of converts as if I was to thank for their salvation, when all I need to do was simply let the love of God pour out in abundance. The love these people felt through a bunch of stupid sticky spaceships was in no way dependent on how I felt about it. Missions isn’t about making yourself feel like a super-good Christian. It’s even less about me than I had originally thought, and even less than I think it is right now.

• You can’t hide from God.

I had spent so long trying to hide from so many things I knew deep-down God was trying to teach me. It was like I was a little kid trying to play hide-and-seek but just sat in the middle of the living room with my hands over my eyes, thinking I was invisible because I couldn’t see. But God pried my hands from my face one finger at a time by removing everything I was trying to hide behind. I didn’t even have a job description to keep me distracted. We were just told: “Here’s Portland. Go be Jesus.” It frustrated me way too much that I didn’t have a set job description to tell people, so I could sound all Christian-y to everyone back in Texas. I got so tired having the awkward conversation of trying to explain what I was doing there. It often hurts a lot to be vulnerable, and I hurt a lot this summer. It’s like when Moses was instructed to remove his sandals when he was on holy ground so nothing would separate him from the presence of God. I was forced into having to face my own wretchedness in the light of God’s glory, and that hurt a lot to see that. But even through that, I saw the undying love God has for me even, even though I have never deserved it.

• Portland works a lot like home.

I live in Denton, which is one of the most hipster towns you can find in Texas. So culturally, it’s not too entirely different. But mainly, people are still people no matter where you go, and God is still God. I am not “off mission” since I’m back on campus. If anything, I’m more on mission now than ever, because I actually have a more long-lasting impact on this community. I’m here for so much longer than two months, and God loves Texans just as much as Oregonians, and people here are just as much in need of salvation as everyone else.

Shelby Byrd, a student at the University of North Texas, served this summer in Portland, Ore., with Go Now Missions.

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