A Broken Spirits Anonymous Meeting
—Aylin Awbrey, Cities Outreach Department Intern
When 2:00pm rolls around each Wednesday, a circle of green chairs reside in the Ellis room, with a warm body hunkered in almost every seat. The smell of brewing coffee permeates the dank air that often escapes into the room from the outside neighborhood. After everyone has had a chance to mingle and grab their coffee, a short prayer ensues and the Bible study begins. “Let’s all turn to Proverbs 16,” directs Ali, the group’s fearless Bible study leader. The whispering sounds of Bibles opening and their thin pages turning, momentarily drowns out the grim urban melody from the streets beyond the Ellis Room doors.
Proverbs consists of 31 chapters intended “for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair,” (Proverbs 1: 2 - 3). So far, Proverbs’ to-the-point words of wisdom have sparked some insightful discussions. After one or two people read a chapter, the conversation opens to questions, verses that may have resonated with anyone, life-application ideas, and generally any other thoughts, comments, or concerns. Wayne, long-time Bible study attendee and graduate of the 360 Program, claims listening to everyone’s different perspectives of the reading is his favorite part of the hour. “It all means one thing, but everyone has different perspectives on it,” he says. The book of Proverbs can be summed up in one passage: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). The discussion, for instance, about what it truly means to “fear the Lord” has been ongoing. Does fearing God mean actually being scared of him, or perhaps it means something deeper? Terms such as obedience, respect, unconditional love, and tough-love have come up in conversation about what it means to both fear and be loved by the Lord. Carmen, another Bible study veteran, agrees with Wayne: “My favorite part is the discussion. Not only reading The Word, but understanding The Word.”
This particular Wednesday-afternoon circle is open to anyone, and attendance consists of men and women, young and old, homeless and housed. The Bible study functions under the umbrella of Restoration Initiatives, YWAM SF’s ministry devoted to reaching out to the community of the Tenderloin neighborhood, most prominently its marginalized and overlooked members often subject to the issues of homelessness, isolation, addiction, and poverty. Carmen feels this Wednesday Bible study fellowship is especially unique because it brings her closer to her community. “I can point people to the Bible study because it’s in the Tenderloin,” she says, “It’s accessible to the people most in need.” Carmen knows this firsthand. She is one of the people who was pointed to YWAM San Francisco shortly after she moved to the city. 17 months after joining the Ellis Room Bible Study, she realized her true call to discipleship, and that she wanted more than a Wednesday a week to study the Bible and learn in fellowship with others. Now almost two years after the day she stumbled upon the Ellis room, Carmen is a member of Restoration Initiatives’ 360 Discipleship Program, and well on her way to becoming its first female graduate! Carmen feels grateful for the source of spiritual nourishment this Christ-centered group has been for her over the years. “The day before I turned 60, I moved to the city,” she says. “The first thing I did was find a church. The second thing I did was find a Bible study. I have been here ever since.”
Apart from the goal to be equipped with Biblical wisdom, the group seems like it functions as more than just a Bible study - several attendees struggle with English as their second language, but still attend faithfully despite not understanding all that is discussed and read. Each week, despite the various roads the group discussion can take, the conversation never fails to open up to people’s own testimonies of how they have grown from their own mistakes, remembering times they have learned from both following and not following what is written in God’s word. The main thing keeping another regular attendee named Salvatori coming is the love and presence of God he feels so strongly each week. “My favorite part is the inviting of Jesus right in the center,” he says. “I feel Christ’s love right there.” The collective transparency of the group almost creates an atmosphere of a support group of sorts. In truth, that’s exactly what it is — a support group for the broken, a “Broken Spirits Anonymous” meeting. Ali, the Ellis Room’s faithful Bible study leader and first-ever graduate of the 360 Program, remembers back to his days of drug abuse, and the way he witnessed God’s immaculate healing and discipline in his life. “I realized I couldn’t get clean [from drugs] without God,” he confesses. “God got me clean. I’ve been clean over 6 years.” Ali hopes for the same transformation within many of the weekly attendees of the Bible study. He knows the fear of the Lord, taught so explicitly in Proverbs, has the power to clean one’s heart mind and soul, even one’s physical body. One of the best parts of the Bible study is “seeing all the regulars that keep coming back,” Ali says. “It’s amazing to see how far they’ve grown, to see the spiritual maturity in them.” Proverbs 4:20-22 says, “My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to a man’s whole body.” Jesus came to transform a world full of the poor, the weary, and the oppressed, and apart from His grace, reading His word is part of this nourishment. The Ellis Room Bible study provides not only a place to gain Biblical wisdom and maturity, but a safe place for anyone to become vulnerable to their brokenness.
And just when the coffee has run out a little past 3pm, a loud “Amen” from a large prayer circle marks the end of the Wednesday Ellis Room Bible Study. After half an hour of hanging out, playing some friendly 8-ball or ping-pong, and getting any extra prayer, it is officially time to leave. When the attendees exit the doors, they pass by a mural painted on the Ellis Room walls of a vast, split-in-half heart with a verse whose words seem to hold the two pieces together: The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, Psalm 147:3. Our hope and prayer at YWAM San Francisco is that each person who walks through the Ellis Room doors would leave with a little more joy than they came in with. We believe that with Christ in the center of something as simple as a circle of green chairs, broken hearts will continue to be mended.