Trust First: A True Story about the Power of Giving People Second Chances

Trust First: A True Story about the Power of Giving People Second Chances

by Bruce Deel, Sara Grace


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If we choose to trust unconditionally, how many lives could we change?

When Pastor Bruce Deel took over the Mission Church in the 30314 zip code of Atlanta, he had orders to shut it down. The church was old and decrepit, and its neighborhood--known as "Better Leave, You Effing Fool," or "the Bluff," for short--had the highest rates of crime, homelessness, and incarceration in Georgia. Expecting his time there to only last six months, Deel was not prepared for what happened next. One Sunday, he was approached by a woman he didn't know. "I've been hooking and stripping for fourteen years," she said. "Can you help me?"

Soon after, Bruce founded an organization called City of Refuge rooted in the principle of radical trust. Other nonprofits might drug test before offering housing, lock up valuables, or veto a program giving job skills and character references to felons as "a liability." But Bruce believed the best way to improve outcomes for the marginalized and impoverished was to extend them trust, even if that trust was violated multiple times--and even if someone didn't yet trust themselves. Since then, City of Refuge has helped over 20,000 people in Atlanta's toughest neighborhood escape the cycles of homelessness, joblessness, and drug abuse.

Of course, trust alone can't overcome a broken system that perpetuates inequality. Presenting an unvarnished window into the lives of ex-cons, drug addicts, human trafficking survivors, and displaced souls who have come through City of Refuge, Trust First examines the context in which Bruce's Atlanta neighborhood went downhill--and what City of Refuge chose to do about it. They've become a one-stop-shop for transitional housing, on-site medical and mental health care, childcare, and vocational training, including accredited intensives in auto tech, culinary arts, and coding. While most social services focus on one pain point and leave the burden on the poor to find the crosstown bus that'll serve their other needs, Bruce argues that bringing someone out of homelessness requires treating all of their needs simultaneously. This model has proven so effective that a dozen new chapters of City of Refuge have opened in the US, including in California, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, and Georgia.

More than a narrative about a single place in time, this radical primer for behavioral change belongs on every leader's shelf. Heartfelt, deeply personal, and inspiring, Trust First will break down your assumptions about whether anyone is ever truly a lost cause. Bruce will donate a portion of his proceeds from Trust First to the charitable organization City of Refuge.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525538172
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/23/2019
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 86,408
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bruce Deel founded City of Refuge in 1997. He is the Senior Pastor of The Mission Church and a graduate of Lee University in Cleveland, TN. As a result of his experience and success, Bruce has become a highly sought after speaker and serves as a consultant to numerous non-profits around the country.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: "A Gentle Downward Pressure"

Twenty years ago, I showed up on a dilapidated corner of Bankhead Highway, in one of Atlanta’s roughest corridors, with a van full of food. I had just formed a nonprofit called City of Refuge, and this was my first attempt to go out into the community to serve people in crisis, people who for whatever reason had not found a safe, comfortable path through the wilderness of life.

Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear this, or maybe you won’t: My first meal did not go smoothly. In fact, in the narrow window of three terrifying minutes, it made me wonder if I should go home and throw in the towel for good.

My first meal service was well underway that day, with a crowd of fifty or so people gathered for the best hot chili my wife Rhonda, a few volunteers, and I could put together. I was filling my umpteenth plastic bowl when I heard screaming. First a female voice, then a male one, in a jumbled string of obscenities. I scanned for the noise and saw a woman reach into her jacket pocket and pull out a gun.

My worries about what might go wrong that evening had been things like, What if we run out of cheese? What if we can’t plate food fast enough? I hadn’t once thought, What if someone pulls out a .45‑caliber pistol? I was a white Christian pastor from rural Virginia who now lived in the Atlanta suburbs—in other words, an interloper with no real knowl­edge of the streets. Nevertheless, I had shown up believing I could do some good by serving a desperate need.

People nearby immediately scattered into shadows and around corners. I then had a clear line of sight to the object of this woman’s fury: a rail-thin man in baggy, dirty sweat­pants. His face showed hints of wornaway rouge and kohl that I wasn’t sure what to make of. He was as aggressive as someone with a gun pointed in his face could possibly be, hurling insults that seemed to dare her to pull the trigger. Catcalls rang out from the shadows, excited fanfare that con­trasted wildly with my own anxiety.

Over the next months, years, and eventually decades, I would come to know these two angry combatants intimately. But that day, I had no idea who they were or how they had arrived there. I didn’t know if they knew each other. I didn’t know whether the gun had bullets or if Gloria (a name I would learn later) had ever pulled the trigger before. I didn’t know exactly why they were so angry, so volatile, so seem­ingly bent on destruction at just the moment when a hot meal was coming their way. I knew only that they were matching each other stare for stare, threat for threat. My breath caught in my throat as sweat beaded my brow.

I glanced back at the building behind me, an empty ware­house beside a liquor store. The one volunteer who had come with me that day was standing inside the building’s storm door, holding the handle. I could tell by the look on his face that he was holding the door shut, unwilling to step out into the fray.

I didn’t know yet that Gloria was seen on the streets as an unusually kind soul, a pleasant conversationalist who was known to share a blanket on a cold night or food from her own meager stash. I didn’t know that she was alcoholic or how hard it was to combine that illness with being black and poor and come up with anything other than tragedy.

Though the whooping crowd had an obvious favorite (Glo­ria), I didn’t know that Rufus was unanimously regarded as belligerent and hateful, quick to cut those with whom he dis­agreed, seemingly without reason. Nor did I know anything about his background— that he had never had a safe place where he was loved unconditionally and that the closest approximation he’d had was a community of needle- sharing prostitutes. I didn’t know how many churches, erstwhile sanctuaries for those in need, had turned him away or im­posed conditions for participation that Rufus was unwilling to comply with.

I also didn’t know how poorly I understood poverty and the ways it traps and traumatizes those in its grasp. Like so many privileged people, I had considered the problems of the poor only through the filter of my own experience. I’ve already said I’m a white guy from Virginia. While my family didn’t have much money and my childhood was less than conventional, I had the privilege of two loving parents with high expectations for my future and a home of security, love, and opportunity. In other words, I was born with mo­mentum.

I didn’t understand yet that poverty isn’t caused by bad decisions as much as it compels them. I didn’t recognize what I now call opportunity injustice, the individual and systemic factors that lock people in crisis—poverty, untreated mental illness, and addiction, and the criminalization of all three.

Of course, knowing all that wouldn’t have been much help in a gunfight anyway. Something more instinctive took me over— all it adrenaline, or the stirrings of my upbring­ing. Growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, I was no stranger to a fight. I had never run from a conflict, and I didn’t run from this one. Instead, I stepped gingerly between Gloria and Rufus, who at this point had both gone silent, furious eyes speaking loudly enough. I gently placed my hand on Gloria’s. The steel barrel of the gun protruded from our coupled hands and she gave no indication of back­ing down.

“You don’t really want to do this, do you?” I asked.

As I said the words, I put just the slightest bit of gentle downward pressure on her hand. Time seemed to hang for a moment, none of us sure what would come next. But then I felt the tension ease in Gloria’s body like a sigh. She dropped her arm to her side and slipped the gun into her jacket pocket. Rufus continued his mouthy commentary as I shared a mo­ment with Gloria, a deep sorrow in her eyes. She turned quickly and moved down the sidewalk, only her shadow walking with her. Rufus looked at the group that had enthusiastically booed him, taunted them with a smile, and turned to collect a bowl of chili from the table. I worked to slow my breathing, wiped the sweat from my face, and steadied myself against the table.

I finished the food service that day feeling exhausted and heavy of heart. I didn’t want to have to go back to my family and tell them I might have put myself in harm’s way. I didn’t want to admit that the process of transformation I had imag­ined initiating that day with a kind word and a warm meal wasn’t going to be very successful if every meal became a gunfight—or worse, if someone ended up wounded or dead on the street.

I had arrived that day believing that each and every per­son was worthy of my humble resources of food, time, and attention. The day’s events hadn’t changed that. The day had made me realize just how humble my contribution would be, at least at first, given how little I knew these people and their problems. Had I been stupid to think I could make a differ­ence? Sure, they needed something or someone—but did they need me?

And then I thought about that moment with Gloria. I thought about that feeling of tension leaving her body as I stepped into her space and touched her hand. A gesture so subtle that no eye could have spotted it, just a hint of pres­sure, accompanied by a simple question—do you really want to do this?—had opened the possibility that there was a dif­ferent end to this story than the violent one her gun had set in motion. She answered the question peacefully and in her own truth: No, I do not.

I’m not sure if it was in that moment or looking back later, but I began to wonder if there was something unique I could offer, or was offering, beyond the food itself, even in my naive state as an outsider. I could arrive and be present without prejudice or assumptions, seeing each and every person as capable of making themselves whole and happy. In short, I could extend to these strangers an attitude of radical trust.

How many others might make different, better choices if they were on the receiving end of a gentle, trusting pressure that flooded them with the belief, or perhaps the memory, that no, they didn’t want to do this—this being falling victim to the forces that had left them desperately scrambling for food, without shelter, family, resources, or hope? How many times had the new congregants at my church—or, for that matter, struggling people anywhere—experienced the oppo­site of trust? I thought of all the strangers on the sidewalk, the shopkeepers, the authority figures, the men and women in uniform whose paths they had crossed. I imagined that every time they were watched with suspicious, wary eyes; every time they had been marked with labels that dehumanized them; every time they had been asked to put their hands on a wall or their chest on the pavement; that each of these instances must have walked them incrementally further from the belief that they were worthy of trust or endowed with potential.

I left that day understanding that my journey to help those in crisis would be different and more difficult than in my imaginings. I had a lot to learn. But I also left believing more than ever that the people I’d meet on the street could change their own lives. They just needed someone to extend that gentle pressure.

Table of Contents

A Letter from Simon Sinek ix

Section 1

Chapter 1 A Gentle Downward Pressure 3

Chapter 2 From There to Here 19

Chapter 3 Commune and Communion 43

Chapter 4 Life v. Death 71

Section 2

Chapter 5 The One Stop Shop 95

Chapter 6 A New Home 117

Chapter 7 No Lost Causes 133

Chapter 8 The Old Red Truck 149

Section 3

Chapter 9 Let It Shine 167

Chapter 10 Changing Names, Changing Lives 179

Chapter 11 Trust + Time = Transformation 199

Chapter 12 The Next Thing 217

Acknowledgments 227

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