Why AYM? “You have to get close.”

In his book turned motion picture Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson recalls how his grandmother used to tell him all the time, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… You have to get close.” Bryan took this message to heart; his experience in law school interning with a non-profit working with inmates on death row propelled him into a career of advocacy. 

You have to get close. 

Though I have lived in Asheville since 2002, I am in my second year as the Mission Immersion Director at AYM. Recently I have been thinking a lot about why groups should come to Asheville for a mission experience. In other words, why AYM? Yes, you may know Asheville is a destination city with lots of great hikes, waterfalls as well as great food & music venues. AYM is located right downtown at First Presbyterian Church, and who doesn’t love getting candy at Mast General?! Over the past dozen years we have established relationships with many non-profit partners who are doing great work in the community.  

But while these are all good reasons to consider AYM, I don’t think they get to the heart of the matter. In our mission immersion experiences at AYM, what we attempt to do is offer youth and adults the opportunity to get close to mission in a variety of ways:

  • Getting close to mission looks like circling up to learn about the systemic causes of hunger at Root Cause Farm, and then spending the morning with your hands in the soil harvesting organic produce. 
  • Getting close to mission looks like bringing donated household items for Homeward Bound’s Welcome Home Center, learning about the housing first model, and then sorting them so people who have been chronically homeless can have what they need in their new home. 
  • Getting close to mission means sitting at table with Asheville neighbors at the 12 Baskets Cafe or Haywood Street Congregations’s Downtown  Welcome Table, listening and sharing with those society often labels as “other” or “unclean.” 
  • Getting close to mission means listening to friends like TJ who share about the shame and brokenness surrounding poverty, and how support from community and God is essential in the journey towards a more just society.

As a relatively small-sized city, Asheville is made even smaller by the close relationships between its non-profits and faith communities. When AYM groups participate in the “Walk in their Shoes” experience, it is not unusual to see neighbors we met earlier in the week while we were playing Jenga at the Haywood Street Congregation, or veterans we met at ABCCM’s Veteran’s Restoration Quarters. Such closeness is key not only for the breaking down of stereotypes but for missional transformation– the transformation that happens when we see our mission not so much as “helping others” but rather, that through our encounters with others we are being changed. At AYM our hope is that such transformative moments will happen during your time with us, and that through mission immersion our groups will be equipped to go back to their home context and join in God’s mission of justice and mercy in new and bold ways. 

Rev. Michael Poulos
AYM Mission Immersion Director


Top Ten for AYM!! by Debbie Alford

2015 Top Ten List

I’m not much on resolutions, I often overlook them as the year progresses.  I’m more likely to review the previous year.  I’m always about my friends Best Nine of Instagram or Most Used Words on Facebook.  It’s New Years Eve so here is my Top Ten for AYM.  They are in no particular order.

10) There are many social justice issues that I have learned about since moving to Asheville.  The knowledge I’ve gained while working with AYM continuously reminds me to be involved in creating avenues for change.  I enjoy teaching our participants about hunger, homelessness, community, etc and helping them change the world.

9) AYM partners with over 20 local nonprofits.  All year, I’m connecting with volunteer coordinators to set up times for AYM groups to volunteer.  Sometimes when meeting with new agencies, they worry that our youth are too young or might not do a good job at the assigned task.  This summer I got multiple calls and emails confirming that our groups exceeded expectations and helped in so many areas.

8) Robert is always smiling and happy to give hugs.  We see each other often at Haywood St. Congregation.  He is always helping leading worship or serving in Respite.  Formerly homeless, Robert now lives downtown near many of our partner agencies.  Recently, in the pouring rain, Robert helped me pack my car to the roof with food to give away.  He then told me he was going to walk home.  I couldn’t let Robert walk home in the downpour so Robert squeezed in the front seat, his lap loaded with boxes of apples.  The conversations and laughter I share with our neighbors one of the times I see the face of God.

7) Each summer we hire college aged interns.  Without Catherine, Rebecca, Caroline, Bryce and Kevin the summer would not have been possible.  They were constantly on the ground with our youth groups at worksites and leading evening program.  I loved witnessing their leadership grow and change.

6) One of our regular service projects involves picking up food and hosting a Free Food Market at Kairos West Community Center.  During the school year I’m frequently with groups hosting the market.  My favorite moment was when a group of high school youth became friends with a child as his family shopped at the market.  Maybe they didn’t know it but those high schoolers embodied radical hospitality that day.

5) Our theme in 2015 was Broken Boundaries.  I got to ask youth hard questions and encourage them to think outside the boundaries that society puts in place.  I love that AYM is a place where youth can struggle with uneasy answers and grow in their understanding of who God has called them to be.

4) The colleagues I work with are amazing.  Bill, Katherine and I each bring unique skills to this ministry and I’m thankful that we round out each others skills and talents.  I’m thrilled that Dawn joined our team in the fall and has shared her gifts with us.

3) We begin each mission experience with asking youth to clothe themselves with Flexibility pants and Humility vests.  I’m also reminded that I need flexibility and humility as I encounter unexpected situations and challenges.  These are the times I’m reminded that God uses us despite our faults.

2) Asheville has a population of about 87,000 people in 44 square miles.  We have about 27,000 visitors on any given day.  Sometimes I feel like the visitors outnumber residents when Im walking around downtown.  Through AYM, I’m able to invite youth groups to discover Asheville through a different lens.  Through our “Walk in their Shoes” I’m able to invite them to consider what the tourism industry means for local people living in poverty.

1) AYM is a place of creativity.  We use art in our evening programs and are constantly thinking of different ways to engage youth and our community.  This year I’ve been able to connect with local youth leaders and nonprofits to discern new ways of connecting teens with service opportunities.  Look for more in 2016!