Somewhere around 290 years ago a Scot with the surname of Austin boarded a ship, probably in Glascow, and set sail for a perilous month-long journey across the North Atlantic. He likely landed in Boston. I will call this man Austin 1.0. Either he or his son (Austin 2.0) moved to Connecticut. A couple decades after the Revolutionary War, Austin 4.0 moved to the Firelands in Northern Ohio along the shores of Lake Erie. The Firelands were land grants given to New Englanders burnt out by the British during the war. He begat Austin 5.0 and in 1838, 5.0 begat John Austin my great-grandfather, who begat George in 1870, who begat Boyd in 1906, who begat Carl George. Someday, perhaps I’ll do the geneology and give them all names. In June, 2011, Carl Geo took off from Philadelphia for a not so perilous 7-hr flight across the North Atlantic landing at Glascow International Airport. And in the words of novelist Kurt Vonnegut: “So it goes…”
I went to Scotland as part of a team of 12 representing Celebrate Recovery from Northland Church in the Orlando area. Our mission was to share the 8-principles of Celebrate Recovery with Teen Challenge of NE Scotland. The male and female teams stayed in the residential rehab facilities Sunnybrae (lads) and Benaiah (gals) in the rural countryside north of Aberdeen. Most of the residents are heroin addicts, and not teens. While we were there the ages varied from 20 to 39.
I’d been on one prior short-term mission trip to Spain in 2006, ministering to Muslim immigrants, and one strictly fun 3-week trip to Italy the following year–and so this was my third trek across the Big Pond. Experience has taught me to not carry too many expectations of how I will be impacted by the trip or what I will encounter along the way. I go as much for the thrill of discovering how the Lord will use me as anything. Many years ago Pastor Joel said that 90% of servanthood was just “showing up.” I’ve taken Pastor Joel at his word, and have been showing up with prayers about my service being some tiny contribution to the Lord’s kingdom building.
Spirits were high as our team of 12 gathered at Orlando International on the afternoon of June 16, 2011. We took pics, said goodbye to loved ones and headed thru security to the terminal and lunch at a food court. We had a two-hour flight to Philadelphia. The flight from Philly was delayed for some unknown reason and we sat on the tarmac for over an hour before getting in the air. I’ve never been able to sleep on a plane. However, I was blessed to be the only passenger in my row on a flight 90% booked. I could scarcely believe my good fortune. I was able to stretch out a bit with my head on a pillow against the window. Eventually a young man asked if he could take the aisle seat and I said yes.
We flew on U. S. Air–not a luxury carrier–no TVs on the back of the seats like the Virgin Atlantic 747s and no pampering ala Virgin Atlantic. Our pilot instilled no confidence when he kept pronouncing our destination as “glass cow.” I kept imagining a little porcelain figurine of a black and white Hereford. Nevertheless, he got us there on time. We compensated for most of the hour wait in Philly in the air.
I read and worked a crossword puzzle, and I eventually dozed off in a half-sleep for about an hour. When I came-to we were well over the Atlantic and the sky to the east was turning a soft pastel blue. Hallelujah, we were almost there. I watched the sun come up. Looking around the plane it appeared that most of my traveling companions were still asleep. At 35,000 feet we were well over the clouds and weather. I imagined it would be a bright sunny day in Glascow, but as we came down to land we passed thru a dense layer of clouds and overcast. It was drizzling and dark as we taxied to the terminal.
We were a tired, disheveled and slightly disoriented band that trudged thru immigration, baggage and customs. We stopped at the money changers to convert dollars to pounds and gradually wound our way to the front entrance where we were met by Kevin and Paul with Sunnybrae’s 15-passenger van. Kevin and Paul were level-4s which meant they have spent a year in the program and function like para-staff members. It was still drizzling and we got a bit damp while loading the van. Crocs are comfortable until it rains. I took off my wet socks and threw them in my carry-on.
Glascow is a big industrial city. It is the only really mega-city in Scotland. It was friday morning and we inched our way thru rush hour traffic for what seemed like hours before the suburbs gradually gave way to the countryside. Paul was playing Christian CDs and most of our group was chattering away and happy to be nearing our destination. I was quiet and focused out the window. I listened to the thick accents of Kevin and Paul and realized that with my hearing problem I was only understanding about half of what they were saying. The Northeast of Scotland has its own distinct dialect referred to as Doric. Oddly enough, no one is quite sure why it is called Doric.
As we got into the countryside I was struck by how much it resembled parts of Appalachia–rolling green hills against a backdrop of low mountains. The Grampian Highlands were the backdrop for stone farm houses and emerald fields of the brightest green imaginable–full of sheep–lots of sheep and big black & white moo cows. In Doric, cow is pronounced “coo.”
It drizzled off and on, but the further we got from the big city the better I felt. We took the A-9 to the A-90 toward Aberdeen passing near Perth and Dundee. After a couple of hours we stopped at a shopping plaza for petrol and a pit stop. Gas is about triple what it is in the U.S. and it took something close to $200. to fill up the van. We were at a giant Tesco–the UK version of Wal-Mart. We used the toilets and grabbed snacks. I use the proper term “toilet” as someone informed me that “restrooms” in the UK are morgues.
I studied a map and tried to figure out how long it would take to get to our destination. I figured two and a half, maybe three hours, but noooo it was over four hours and with each passing minute I was getting more and more antsy to be off the van. We had been sitting on one conveyance or another for the better part of 13 hours. Our route took us thru Aberdeen and eventually off the A-90. We wound our way thru picturesque villages with names like Methlick, Duninsane and Fyvie. When we reached the tiny village of Woodhead the rain let up and patches of blue and bits of sun were peaking thru the overcast. I recognized Sunnybrae in the distance. We turned down a long narrow lane at a sign that read: Sunnybrae & Teen Challenge of NE Scotland.
Pastor Gordon Cruden, plus several of his staff and residents rushed out to greet us. We were all relieved to be at our destination–except for the ladies. Following a short orientation and dinner, Laurie Jean, Mary Ann, Barb, Susan, Maria and Becky boarded another van with Monica for a 30-min drive to Benaiah, the ladies rehab.
The Northland “lads team” was Ralph, Jim, Lee, Dale, myself and Clint, our leader. To Clint fell the unenviable task of keeping us organized and on task. We were given a tour and then taken to our cottage. I was immediately impressed with the lengths the Scots went to make us feel welcome. My bed had a name card along with a packet of info and some gifts of local sweets and a couple of bottles of the indigenous soda, Irn Bru (Iron Brew). Fourteen of Sunnybrae’s 16 beds were occupied by residents but they managed to find accommodations for our team of six. I initially shared a room with Dale and then later with Lee. Lee and I were the perfect match because he talks loud and I’m hard of hearing. Looking out the windows of our cottage I was struck by what a peaceful setting the Sunnybrae complex occupies.
A few hours after dinner that evening Lee, Dale, Clint and myself walked down the lane to Woodhead. The village is not much more than a dozen homes. The homes are granite or limestone and have the charming little smokestacks foreign to anything one would see in Florida–save for the Hogwarts attraction at Universal. Some of the homes had low stone walls around little gardens of flowers and vegetables. There are no stores in Woodhead, but there is an old abandoned church. We walked around the church yard snapping pics. Lee found some gravestones with his last name: Gray–maybe distant relatives. When we walked back up the lane to Sunnybrae it was near 10 o’clock but still light out. We were near mid-summer, the longest day of the year, and night that far north night lasts not much more than four hours.
Our first full day in Scotland was a Saturday and fortunately for the weary team it was devoted to R & R. We attended the regional Highland Games at a nearby fairgrounds in Old Meldrum. Highland Games resemble a county fair with athletic events and competitions like folk dancing, crafts, etc–and plenty of spectacular pageantry with tartan-clad drum and bagpipe bands. It was a chilly, rainy day with temps in the low-50s, but the Scots seemed unfazed by the weather and there were several thousand spectators. As I trudged around the grounds, freezing and physically uncomfortable, I nevertheless kept feeling that I was “home”–that this is where some of my ancestors originated and that this was where in some sense I belonged. Eventually, I made my way into a large tent where there was a dance competition taking place. Groups of four young lasses stepped out traditional dances to bagpipes. Along one wall there was a long bar and big men in kilts were slamming down scotches–I must say, I was temped–but settled instead for a diet Coke.
The next day was Sunday, and we drove 40-min to the King’s AoG Church in Aberdeen for services both in the morning and the evening. King’s Church is in an old granite building but has a somewhat remodeled sanctuary. The worship team was young and spirited and they did familiar contemporary Christian songs–as at Northland the lyrics were projected onto a big screen. It was Father’s Day and Pastor Iain and a guest speaker gave short messages. After the service–like churches everywhere–we gathered in the church basement for cookies, juice and tea. I was struck by how friendly and warm everyone was. I expected the Scots to be reserved–perhaps even a bit dour, but they were very warm and engaging–at least at the AoG church.
Sunnybrae’s campus consists of two dormitories, an admin building with offices, a kitchen and dining room, and a trailer where resident staff stay. The chapel, meeting rooms and rec room are in a separate building. Out back, there is a greenhouse, and a large warehouse where the lads learn carpentry and assemble the portable sheds which the program sells. The grounds and facilities are strikingly clean, well-kept and nicely landscaped.
Each weekday morning we participated in worship with the residents. We sang to music videos, and I was immediately struck by how well the Scots sang–with gusto but melodically and on key. Groups of young American men would not sing nearly as well. I was also impressed by the camraderie amongst the residents. They truly seemed to care about one another and vigorously applauded when one would achieve a goal. That first morning of the programme pastor Gordon and the lads had prepared a bit of a send-up for us–we joined hands and sang kumbaya–everybody had a good laugh.
Each morning one of us gave a 5 to 7-min testimony. Following that, another taught an hour-long CR lesson on one of the eight principles. After a short break for coffee, tea and biscuits we facilitated hour-long sharing groups to discuss the impact of the lesson and testimony. What we didn’t realize was that this type of small group sharing was quite different to both the local Scot’s culture and to Teen Challenge.
The most memorable testimony was that of Ralph. He’s a big, bearded guy of 78-years who has been sober for well over 30. He has a weath of AA and other 12-step experience. A great talker, his colorful testimony was running well past the 5-7 minutes allotted and Clint started to make frantic cut-it-off signs. Ralph just kept on going. The young Scots were enthralled with his story of sobriety and redemption. Eventually, Clint made more exasperated gestures; finally, Ralph snarled, “You don’t tell an alcoholic what to do.” He said this with such a flare that everyone fell off their chairs rolling with laughter–everyone except Clint.
The weekday programme was the same each morning, but varied a bit in the afternoons. Afternoons were devoted to vocational programs. However, Lee and Dale got to ride out to a couple locales on the outreach bus with Andrew Marjoram. In addition to the vocational programme, residents met with Adrian Davis for “personal advisement” sessions in the afternoons–what we would call individual counseling. Being a therapist I got to meet with Adrian a couple of times and discuss my work and his work. He struck me as a great guy, a balding 50-ish Welshman who still competes in 10ks and marathons.
Several evenings were devoted to socializing. On monday the ladies came over from Benaiah for a barbecue, and on Tuesday our team went to their lovely facility for dinner. Each night there were programs that helped orient the Scots to Celebrate Recovery. Both evenings there was great worship and fellowship following dinner.
The week sped by quickly, and Saturday was again devoted to sight-seeing. Pastor Gordon drove us to the lovely seaside hamlet of Pennan. This old fishing village on the North Sea was the setting for the 1983 movie Local Hero. A panoramic pic of it serves as the header on my Facebook profile page. Pennan is basically one street of white painted buildings snuggled under a steep cliff. It has only a handful of full-time residents. Most of the homes are bed & breakfasts. In Pennan there is an iconic red phone booth where Peter Riegert made a phone call to Burt Lancaster–advertised as the most famous phone booth in Scotland. After Pennan we toured Fyvie Castle. This is one of the most historic castles in Scotland and not much more than two miles thru the woods from Sunnybrae.
That evening our team shared movie night with the lads. We watched the newer version of True Grit. Somehow sharing in this mythic tale of the American West seemed an appropriate bonding experience and finale for our stay. Afterwards we had refreshments in the dining room and said our farewells; we had to be up early the following morning for our meeting with the ladies team and the long drive to Glascow.
The Return: Redux
The following summer, that of 2012, I was able to return again to Scotland and to Sunnybrae. The team was smaller–just myself and four ladies: Laurie Jean, Kelli, Susan and Nina. Several guys from Celebrate Recovery expressed an interest in going but none, for one reason or another, was able to swing it. I prayed mightily for another guy to be my roomie but none stepped up, and so I ended up sharing a room with Ryan, a level-4 who I recalled from the previous summer.
For whatever reason I had a great deal of apprehension about this trip. I worried that it would not measure up to the previous year, and I worried that my participation would be cancelled by some unknown factor–perhaps an illness. I worried that the ladies would band together in some clique-ish fashion and I’d feel ostracized, and I worried that this group of residents couldn’t possibly measure up to the quality of lads from the previous year. The summer of 2011, had been such an extraordinary experience that 2012, was bound to be a letdown.
Several things were to be different about the 2012 trip. For one, we flew from Orlando to Amsterdam, and then to Aberdeen instead of Glascow. Thus, Pastor Gordon was able to pick us up in Aberdeen and we saved a long four-hour van ride. Also, Benaiah was left out of the planning, and the ladies team stayed at Sunnybrae. As the previous year we conducted the programme in the morning. However, part of the focus for this trip was to plan with three area AoG churches that were interested in starting Celebrate Recovery programs, and the plan was to meet with the respective pastors in the afternoons and for various team members to share their testimony at the AoG churches in Aberdeen, Peterhead and Fraserburgh. The largest church was the King’s Community Church where we had worshipped at the previous summer.
Also, afternoons were planned for some of us to go out on the outreach van with Andrew Marjoram and his level-4 helper, Roger. Each afternoon the van went to a different community and set up shop in a church parking lot or car park. Locals would come in for a spot of tea. some cookies and get info about Sunnybrae. I was privileged to go to Banff, Peterhead and Ellon. During our afternoon in Ellon, I was able to engage in some one-to-one counseling with a lonely, alcoholic widower.
The week went by smoothly, and none of my pre-trip fears were realized. Returning to Sunnybrae felt like returning home, and if anything, this year’s residents were even more open to us and the CR message. And I felt like it was indeed God’s plan that I be the teams’ only male. Being a bit shy, I’ll defer to others and sit quietly in the background, but I think God wanted me to have to step up–and I did. I felt that the residents were very open to my teaching and testimony. Also, after a bit of initial shyness the lads bonded amazingly well with the ladies, and I thought the five of us worked together better as a team than the twelve the previous summer.
One of our ladies courageously shared her testimony of sexual abuse at the “brae” and at two of the AoG churches. The Scots had likely never heard an adult female speak publicly about being a victim of sexual abuse and its devastating consequences. One can only hope that her example allowed others to eventually come forward and share other dark secrets that lie at the heart of addiction and emotional illness.
As before, we went sightseeing on Saturday. Pastor Gordon picked us up early and treated us to a huge Scottish breakfast–complete with bangers, thick slabs of bacon and blood pudding. Afterwards we toured Haddo House, a country estate that reminded one of the manor in Downton Abbey. In the afternoon we went to Pennan again, and that evening we were able to treat him and his family to dinner at a fine restaurant.
Later that evening we had a debrief with the residents and two ceremonies. There is a large wooden cross on the grounds at Sunnybrae. We had the residents write their addictions and emotional burdens on pieces of paper and then we went out in a lightly falling mist at twilight, prayed and burned the papers in a bucket at the foot of the cross. When we went back into the chapel I gave each of the lads a dollar “gold” coin–the presidential commemorative ones that are legal tender but which no one spends. I explained the significance of chips or coins in 12-step programs, and said that I was giving them each one to carry in their pocket to remind them of their sobriety and our visit. They were plainly delighted, and afterwards several said, “Well done, Carl, well done!” That was the high point of the trip for me–and I can only hope that somewhere in eternity Austin 1.0 my Scots ancestor who circa 1720, bravely sailed to North America was saying, “Well done” as well.