It’s the middle of August, 2015. Greg Fisher steps onto a Greyhound bus, takes a big whiff of recycled oxygen, and quickly scopes out his seating options. The plastic armrests feel like they’ve been painted with popsicle juice and the air is thick, but there’s a part of him that still feels cold inside. Cold and lonely, even in this dead heat. That’s the ironic thing about the city. You’re always surrounded by people, but never with anyone. But it doesn’t matter now. He has a one-way ticket to take him across the country, far away from Philadelphia.
He walks down the bus aisle, looking for the best place to sit.
He knows everyone gets a dose of suffering in life, but it feels like he hit the jackpot. Growing up in the suburbs of Philly, he spent most of his time playing outside so he wouldn’t be forced to watch his parents fight, which they were known for around the neighborhood. His dad smoked and drank heavily and abused Greg’s mom. When Greg was eight, his parents separated and his mom moved to another suburb. After the separation, Greg began learning how to juggle life in two homes instead of one. One year, two days after Christmas at his dad’s house, Greg got up in the middle of the night to get some water and discovered his dad lying limp on the couch. Greg screamed and yelled and then dialed the number every nine-year-old knows: 9-1-1. Soon the police and EMTs swarmed his living room like bees and confirmed that his dad had suffered a heart attack and died. After that, there was no more juggling. Just life with mom, her boyfriend, and Greg’s siblings.
Greg’s almost to the back of the bus now.
The trauma and dysfunction he faced as a kid threw him into a slow downward spiral. As a teen, he became depressed and isolated himself. His mom took him to see psychiatrists, but instead of helping him to feel happy, the medications they prescribed only made him numb to everything. In high school, he felt like no one liked him. This suspicion of how he was perceived became a self-fulfilling prophecy: he thought no one liked him, so he acted in ways that were unlikable. As a result, he had no friends. College was just a repeat of the same song.
Greg didn’t find much relief in religion either. Raised Catholic, he went to Sunday School regularly as a child, but it was always a superficial experience. He spent his early teen years attending a Presbyterian church, which was pastored by a kind man who befriended Greg, Mike Poteet. However, when Pastor Poteet resigned, Greg’s heart was burnt. By the end of high school, he stopped going to church altogether. God always seemed to be taking away the people he needed most, so why should he keep putting in his time?
In 2009, things finally came to a head. Walking in the subway station in downtown Philly, Greg had never felt more hopeless in his life. He stepped up to the yellow line, the one that separated all the busy people with lives and friends and families and homes from the subway track. He began to wonder if it would be better to jump over that line and let the subway do its thing. He didn’t seem to belong on this side of the line anyway and there was no sign of life getting any better.
But then, as he was inching his toes into the yellow, a voice came into his head, sharp and clear: are you sure you want to do this? Just about every bad decision you can make in life you can take back at some point. But this decision you can never take back. What’s done is done.
Walking in the subway station in downtown Philly, Greg had never felt more hopeless in his life.
He hesitated just enough to feel the tsunami of wind whoosh by as the subway passed. When the next train came, instead of jumping in front of it, Greg hopped into it to go home.
That was five years ago now. But, as he’d expected, life hadn’t gotten much better. He’d dropped out of college and then finally found a job after two years of being unemployed. But his depression hadn’t left him alone. He knew there had to be more to life than just paying bills and working. So, back in the spring of 2015 he’d decided he needed to leave Philly to get a fresh start somewhere else, somewhere far away, somewhere with good beer to drink and weed to smoke.
Now it’s a blood-baking August. Greg finally picks a window seat to the right side of the aisle, throws his backpack up above, and settles in for the ride. Somewhere like Eugene, Oregon.
* * *
After three days on the Greyhound, Greg arrives in Eugene and checks into a hotel. Between his time exploring the city and sleeping in, he opens an email that kindly tells him that although he has a stunning resume, they’ll be looking for someone else to fill the position he interviewed for. His wallet is going to be thinner than a paperclip soon and he doesn’t know a soul in the city. He shrugs. From the way things had been going in Philly, he’d thought he’d end up homeless anyway. Might as well travel and be somewhere new if it was going to happen. In the meantime though, he keeps watching TV and sleeping in. Might as well live it up at Timbers Motel. For a week, he visits local breweries and enjoys his vacation. Then, with his small suitcase trailing behind him like a lost puppy, he takes to the streets.
As Greg begins to mosey around the city, he finds a special sense of freedom, especially since it’s summer. The days are long and warm and people are generally carefree. With no place to call home, he has no responsibility, no commitments. If he wants to go to the ice cream store across town, he can. The city is at his fingertips. Well, as long as no one calls the cops on him for loitering.
But even with all of his foot-loose-and-fancy-free freedom, he can’t seem to get rid of that gnawing deep inside him: a longing to belong.
Then, one soggy October day, when the Oregon sky is drooling beads of rain, Greg’s hanging out at the bus stop. Two girls approach him, Judy and Richelle, offering a post-card size invitation to a seminar called “CRAVE.” They tell him the speaker is addressing the desires of humanity and what our wants tell us about life. Greg looks at the card, then back at the girls. There’s something different about them. They’re both warm, genuine, and friendly, things he’s not used to. Heck, why not?
…he can’t seem to get rid of that gnawing deep inside him: a longing to belong.
As he listens to the presentations at CRAVE, Greg feels his eyebrows pull together like two magnets. The speaker is talking about God and religion in a way he’s never heard of before, in a way that makes it actually kind of, well, palatable. No, not just palatable, but positive. Afterward, Judy and Richelle introduce him to all their friends. They eat crumbly cookies together and explain that they’re all part of a discipleship school called “ARISE.” In between the ARISE students standing around him and talking together, Greg sees something he’s always longed for but never experienced: community. Later, Richelle invites Greg to come to their church, Storyline Adventist Church. At church, Greg begins to wonder if he’s finally found what he’s been looking for. Attending Storyline becomes part of his routine.
But in November, ARISE ends and the students leave. Greg suddenly feels alone again and cold. Sleeping outside in the rain doesn’t make it any better. Sometimes he spends his nights walking the streets in an effort to keep warm.
December makes a frosty appearance and then gives way to January. One day, while Greg is hanging out at the library, he runs into one of the few friend’s he’s made in the city, David. David is about to go to a Bible study and invites Greg to join him. When they step into the library study room, Greg’s eyes widen as he sees Jason and Ida at the table, two of the ARISE students he’d met in the fall. They hug and laugh and explain that they’re back to do a six-month internship. Partway through, David bows out of the study and Ida and Jason continue on with Greg. That first study turns into three the next week and the week after that and the week after that. Greg had never really cracked open the Bible for himself, so Jason and Ida are sharing one revelation after another. Over time, Greg feels he has a family with his new friends and the gnawing suspicion that they have something special grows into a firm conviction.
* * *
It’s the beginning of July 2016. The Oregon sun is baking everyone, despite all the wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and mayonnaise-y layers of sunscreen. Greg and Jason both wade waist-deep into the river that runs by the Light Bearers Campus. Years before, Greg had almost ended his own life because he felt like he had no purpose and no one cared about him. Now, as Jason lowers him into the river so the water can rush over his whole body, he submits to a different kind of death. A death that brings a new life filled with meaning and love.
In the fall, Greg enrolls in the ARISE program. Every day he absorbs more of God’s love. He preaches his first sermon with a distinctive Philly accent. During outreach, he chats with the homeless and marginalized that walk the streets of Eugene and hang out at the bus stops like he used to. He passes out fliers to a seminar called “CRAVE.”
As part of the 2017 internship, he gives Bibles studies, meets with church members, and shares his story. As I ask him question after question, he sits across from me with one foot propped up on his other knee. He’s quick to laugh and smile and he generously lets me probe my way into his past. He tells me he wants people who hear his story to know that things get better the moment you decide to give God a chance. He wants them to know we don’t have to do life on our own. There’s a Savior, and when He becomes your friend, well, it’s a game changer. That’s been his experience at least.
Greg’s life shows me that the gospel is undeniably circular and relational in its nature: we see the love of God when we come close to others, and once we’ve seen it, we’re naturally inspired to do the same for someone else. We’re not all going to be Bible workers or pastors, but we are all called to love others and be a friend; we’re all called to be disciple-making disciples, which is why ARISE exists.
Hallelujah, Greg. We’re so glad you’re here.