In May, a handful of church members got to go serve at The Midnight Mission. One of our church members work there and she was able to organize a day for us. We got a tour of the Mission and heard many great stories.
At the end, we went to the top of the building and got a great view of the heart of Skid Row.
What I saw has been engrained in my head and heart.
There was just so much trash. Lots and lots of trash.
It was so wrong, so inhumane. And there were people sleeping amongst the piles of trash.
Our church member begin to explain to me that on Monday mornings, the trash is at its worst because, unintentionally, majority of the trash is caused by churches. Churches come to Skid Row (most of them on Sundays) and hand out plates or bags of food to the people. After the food is consumed, there is no place to throw away the plate or bags, and since the churches are long gone by then, the people throw it away on the streets.
There are no trash cans or dumpsters because I was told that people used to either light it on fire to keep warm, or bodies would be found in them.
So as much as the churches help out with feeding the homeless, we cause another problem with amount of trash our feeding produces.
I couldn’t shake the image of the trash on the streets out of my head. I felt like I needed to something. And I really felt like this was the Holy Spirit and not some self-righteous type of conviction.
As I was reflecting and digesting everything that happened the next Monday morning, I remember that Dave Gibbons, pastor of Newsong Church in Irvine once tweeted that he and Francis Chan were walking the streets of Skid Row listening to people’s stories. About a year or two ago, I got to sit in Dave Gibbon’s office and pick his brain for an hour, about ministry, life, faith, etc. I knew that he wouldn’t remember me, but I figured he could point me in the right direction. So I emailed him, half expecting to never hear a reply. Honestly, perhaps I was hoping to not hear a reply, because then I could tell my fickle conscience and the ever-looming presence of the Holy Spirit in my heart that, “Hey. I tried.”
Dave responded. With contact info of people who may help. God wasn’t going to let me slip away that easily.
After much email exchange and phone tag, Walter from the Fred Jordan Mission asked if I could be there on Saturday. I hesitated for a moment, because that Saturday was still Annual Conference. I was looking at the schedule of Annual Conference and saw that one of the topics of discussion during the Annual Conference was going to be about ministry with the poor. A part of me figured that I would do a bit more by actually going to Skid Row instead of staying in Annual Conference and just talking about helping the poor. Besides, I was leaving for DC the following Sunday, and I didn’t want to put off meeting Walter any longer. (Okay. I lied. I didn’t hesitate at all. I said yes, and then looked at the schedule and said, hey it all worked out!)
So I went. Walter gave me great ideas about how we can deal, or at least help, with the trash issue in Skid Row. There was another group that was visiting, and Walter gave all of us a “tour” of Skid Row. In the middle of the tour, I asked Walter if I could be excused from the group, and that I would email him the proposal of our idea to him and the leaders of Fred Jordan Mission. I excused myself so that I could actually explore and engage the people in Skid Row.
A part of me wishes that I hadn’t.
The people in Skid Row were great, don’t get me wrong. I heard many great stories and got a glimpse of what life can be.
But it was Saturday, and there many churches coming to serve the poor.
Before I continue, I must say that I am a bit jaded, and while this may come off as a criticism and judgment, I don’t want it to be.
With that said, I talked to 2-3 churches handing out food. I asked them questions like, how long have they been doing this, how often and why they feel the need to do this. It wasn’t meant to be a confrontational question, I was really, genuinely curious and wanted to get to know some of the pastors coming out. By the way, this was a big step for me, the ever-so-diligent introvert.
One of the churches were not only handing out food and clothes, but also offering prayer to anyone who wanted prayer.
I was in the middle of talking to the pastor of that church, asking my 3 questions, when Richard, came up to us and said that, while he and his friends needed clothes and food, what they really needed was a job.
He explained why it was difficult to find a job and the obstacles he had to go through.
Then he said, “You know what? I never smoked so much weed, since I’ve been homeless.” When he said that, the pastor quietly excused himself from the conversation to attend to his church members. Richard and I continued talking. He explained that a joint was only a buck here, and that, when he wasn’t homeless he never smoked.
I saw that the pastor and the church were loading the van, about to leave, so I simply shouted out to the pastor, “Have a great day and blessings to you and your ministry.” He holds his hand out for a shake, and I took it. Then he prayed for me. I didn’t ask to be prayed for, nor did I want to be prayed for. I felt like he “prayer-jacked” me, like he was invading my sacredness or something. I wasn’t happy that he was praying for some reason, but I wasn’t going to stop him mid-prayer. Who does that?
Then he looks at Richard, and he said (word for word), “Imma pray for you too, brother. Dear Father God. Bless this man with wisdom. Help him find a job so that he can move out of here. But first, help him overcome his weed addiction. Give him strength to defeat this sin, so that he may move on to a better life. Amen. You take care, brother.”
I could see that Richard was upset and he was about to ride away on his bike, when I grabbed him and said, “Hold up. How many times have you been prayed over?”
“Millions of times. So much so that I don’t believe in prayer. That shit don’t work for me.”
I felt the need to apologize for the prayer he just received.
I told him that, it’s not prayer that I don’t believe in. It’s me and my fellow Christians, who can be answers to prayers, if we allow ourselves to be, that I have a hard to believing in. Prayer works. But God works through people many times to make that prayer work.
Then Richard looked at me and said, “You know what bugs me? He thinks that I’m here because of my weed addiction. One, I don’t have a weed addiction. And two, I smoke weed, because I am HERE.”
“I hear you. You need something to dull-”
“The pain. To escape the pain. It’s horrible down here. And sometimes unbearable. Weed helps me see the next day. Do I want to smoke it? Hell no. Do I need to? Hell yes.”
On top the unwanted prayer, the church had one box left of few articles left of clothing. It was socks. It was a bra. And some sweatpants. The pastor instructed his youth to just leave the box there, “Someone’s going to take it.” They were creating more trash. At least they could’ve taken the box with them. Or leave behind a bigger box that someone could find use for. But no. It was trash. And the people treated like every other trash that covered the sidewalk.
I know I’m being overly critical.
I know that the church was there to do good.
But the whole experience has left a bad taste in my mouth. I had a 5-hour plane ride (and an hour and a half delay) on route to DC. The whole time, that prayer was ringing through my heart. He missed the mark by so much.
To which, I began asking, how am I missing the mark?
How am I out of touch to the people I want to serve?
How may I be out of touch with the reality of this world and the needs of the people?
I have been praying and thinking about the plan that Walter and I briefly discussed.
I don’t know if that trash problem can ever be taken care of.
But God has placed this in my heart, and I’ll be damned if I sit here and do nothing about it.
Please keep me in your prayer that we can find an effective way to not only help the people of Skid Row, but also the city of Los Angeles.
If you have any ideas or suggestions on dealing with the trash, please email me or leave me a comment.
And also, if you do pray for me, please pray that I will have patience and compassion and grace, not toward the people of Skid Row, but for the churches who come to serve.
I know that they have the right heart. I need to focus on that more than anything else. It’s not like I’m doing good all the time either.
May I continue to show and share the love and grace I have received from God to everyone who I come in contact with.