The Warrior's Dance

-- Carmen George / Sierra StarOctober 26, 2012 

It was a cold night, the night Marty Upton became a homeless man.

Once a champion bull rider and professional cowboy that broke horses for a living, a string of tragedies had broken his spirit.

Within an eight-year span, Upton had experienced more hardships than most experience in a lifetime: the death of two young sons, one hit by a train at age 20, another burned up in a house fire at age 17. His wife whom he was separated with was murdered or committed suicide, her death still marked as "unknown." And the loss of his right eye -- caused by a shard of grass that shot into his eye while weed eating.

After he lost his 17-year-old son Luke, all of it had become too much to bear. He tore his Bible to shreds and got in a fight at a bar -- threw a chair threw a window, and ended up spending 45 days in jail.

When he was released, he had lost everything. His uncle, who lives in the area, brought him up to the mountains in November to join a rehabilitation program to help get him off alcohol and marijuana, what he started using heavily after his second son died.

But Upton knew what he really needed -- and it was something bigger.

"Twelve-step programs work for a lot of people but I didn't need all those steps," Upton said. "I just needed one step -- Jesus. I was hanging on to God and staying at churches at night."

On the cold nights when the churches weren't open, he stayed in a tent by the river in Oakhurst. Not long after he became homeless, a volunteer from a local church gave him a Bible. It happened to be the exact Bible -- a rare, expensive Dake Bible -- that he had torn to shreds years before.

He started going to church as often as he could, usually five days a week for Bible studies and services.

"I started realizing I had been blaming the wrong person," Upton said. "When I got here, I had to say, 'Enough is enough.'"

For Upton, coming back to God is not just an act of faith, it is an act of courage. It is a statement that he will no longer allow evil to harm him.

"God got my attention," Upton said. "I've been through a lot and I can't let Him go. Now I'm a warrior for Christ and my battle of war is my dance and my cry and my praise -- those are my weapons of choice ... I walk closer to God now than before I ever lost him (his son Luke).

"God looks at death as the beginning, not the end. So when I go to church, I dance. People don't know how to handle me sometimes, but I love God with all my heart. I get up and I dance and they know what the blessing of Jesus does for me."

Several months ago, his style of worship wasn't understood at first glace while dancing and praising God at The Grove Ahwahnee Foursquare Church. After some church-goers voiced their concern, Jim Jensen, a "first impression man" for the church, whose job is to help greet new guests, tapped Upton on the shoulder and relayed what had been told to him and asked if he could tone it down a little. Upton agreed, and then walked out.

Jensen felt regret grow inside him. He followed Upton down the road, apologizing and inviting him back. Upton instead asked him for a ride to Yosemite New Life Church of the Nazarene, where he felt more comfortable worshipping. Jensen took him there, and then followed him inside.

"It's just embarrassing," said Jensen, as tears filled his eyes. "He told me a story (during the ride to the Nazarane) and it crushed me. He goes limping inside and I pulled to the edge of the parking lot and went inside too. And I saw Marty in the middle of worship -- Free.

"I had gotten a little caught up in the process of church instead of the people. My 'first impression' is I didn't listen to the heart of God. Marty shows us to worship God in freedom, and there are a lot of people who don't know how to do that. He does, and he shows us how ... to see this guy rocking back and forth, that reminds me of what it's all about, and that brought me to my knees."

"He said, 'God told me to watch you worship him,' and he got down on his knees and lifted his hands and bawled his eyes out and he said, 'David danced before God,'" Upton said of Jensen. The two are now good friends.

"So many of us are called the 'frozen chosen,' including me, we are more frozen in our showing of worship then we should be," said friend Don Collins, who attends Oakhurst Evangelical Free. "We sit there and we're stoic and we think that's the way God wants it and that's not the way God wants it. In the Bible, it says while David was dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, his wife called him 'undignified' and then David took his clothes off and kept dancing, and God honored him. That's pretty crazy for me man. I don't see myself ever getting to that point, and that guy was an absolute king."

"He brought life when there was stillness, does that make any sense?" said Pastor Bill Rushing, of Rushing Wind Ministries of Yosemite. "And to the other churches too. There is a lot of respect for Marty. He's gone a long way and God has always been first. It's a good thing and we need more people like Marty to share. Some people hold back their God he they get outside of the church, and Marty doesn't. That's a blessing for all."

Five months ago, Ray and Denise Gregoire at The Grove Ahwahnee Foursquare Church were so touched by his example, they gave him their old motorhome.

Upton's life now revolves around his nine-year-old son, Seth, who lives in Raymond. Upton is allowed periodic visits with him on weekends, and is hoping to be granted overnight visits soon now that he is no longer living in a tent.

"He's pretty protective," Seth said. "He's a good man, he likes to worship God and he's an animal lover, just like me. He's nice, he's generous."

Soon after receiving the motorhome, Upton became the permanent night watchman for the Manna House, the emergency food and clothing facility in Oakhurst, which had been broken into seven times in June.

"When I first began introducing Marty to people, even before he became our night watchman, I introduced him as John the Baptist -- a voice crying out to the wilderness, but he was a voice crying out to the homeless population ... homelessness is another form of wilderness," said Manna House Director Tom Nicolulis. "Since he's been on our property in his motorhome, there's no more vandalism. He talks with everyone who comes and is so kind and gracious and loving, but at the same time, he keeps them in line. He knows how to talk to the homeless population."

That "knowing" how to communicate with them is rooted in a deep empathy and understanding.

"He doesn't have any money, but he'd get food stamps, and with those food stamps, he'd go buy food and give it to the homeless people," said friend Steve Riley, who attends Evangelical Free. "He's got this attitude -- if you're around him you'll hear him say 'Praise God, praise God,' and he's gone through some really tough stuff."

On top of all he's been through, Upton underwent surgery four weeks ago to remove cancer in his bladder. Upton recently signed up for medical care for the first time through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs -- having served in the Army during the Vietnam War era -- and during a check-up, doctors spotted the cancer.

"I like to say, 'Me and cancer went into the hospital together, and me and God left without it," Upton said.

And still, he keeps giving.

"Someone gave him a brand new pair of shoes, and he gave them to another homeless person," Collins said. "He said, 'You know what, that guy needs the shoes more than I do.'"

While homeless, Upton cleaned up the property he was staying on -- filling up close to 100 garbage bags with trash. It touched Bob Curran, the owner of the commercial property in Oakhurst. The two are now good friends.

Upton gave the tent he once lived in to a homeless grandmother and her granddaughter, who now call it home.

One of Collins' favorite stories revolves around when Upton came with him to Costco. He shared a hello and "God bless you" with all he locked eyes with, stopping continuously to pray with people he met, bringing one man to tears.

"When I go to Costco, I don't want to talk to anybody. I want to go in there and buy my food and go away, and here is Marty praying," Collins said. "He's with this Hispanic family and he's got his arms in the air, praising God and they're praying with Marty, and they don't go to church either ... He's so convicting to be around. I don't do in a week what he does in an hour."

Around Easter, Upton volunteered with the local "Got Hope" effort to encourage residents to come to church.

"With the 'Got Hope' ministry, we visited close to 800 homes, and some people slammed the doors on us. And when they slammed a door, Marty would reach up his hands and pray for them -- that's not a natural reaction," Collins said. "The natural reaction is, 'Screw you,' and Marty responds with, 'There is so much going on here.'"

"If people ever wonder what is was like back in the day when Jesus walked, spend a day with Marty," said Ray Gregoire "Marty touches people."

"I want to change the world, one random act of kindness at a time," Upton said. "And that comes from loving the Almighty."

Collins said his conviction to help the homeless is rooted in his understanding of the life of Jesus Christ.

"Christ loved the unlovely ... he reached out to those who couldn't help themselves rather than those who have it under control. He becomes this model for solving the ills of society and it boils down to grace," Collins said. "Mercy is not getting what you deserve and grace is getting what you don't deserve -- that's the essence of being a Christ follower. You get what you absolutely don't deserve. You want to see a miracle? Take a breath, because that breath is not your own, you did not create it. You are borrowing it from something else ...

"We're called to help, we're not called to judge them. We're not supposed to say, 'What a messed up life,' because, quite frankly, we are all messed up in little ways."

"God told me, even if he lost both his eyes, Marty would not lose sight of God," said Bobby Beighey, the drummer of the worship team "Surrendered Life." "And there are people who are walking around with two eyes blind."

"I used to think I was all that and a bag of chips and then I realized, a real man stands up and makes a line and says, 'This is right, and this is wrong,'" Upton said. "Real men are faithful to their wives and are fathers to their children. Real men are taking their kids to church. Jesus I think is the realest man that ever walked the face of the earth. He loved him that hurt him. To lay down your life for a friend -- What better life is there than that? That's a real man. Loving those who persecute them. Being courteous to those who are near to you."

"Sometimes we don't know what God's got in store and then you look back and see all that's come out of it, and you say, 'Wow,' and most people couldn't have gone through it," said Upton's mother Jody McDowell. "In his younger, wilder days, I would have never dreamed he would grow up and be a minister."

"He went through thick and thin and hell and high water, and he came out big," she said, as tears filled her eyes. "The biggest red rose you've ever picked."

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