Our last day of volunteering in LA was rainy. We returned to the Union Rescue Mission. This time was much different from serving in the food kitchen. Our job that morning was to spend 90 minutes to 2 hours enjoying activities with folks who were in the "Day Room" to get off the street for a while. There was a little bit of a stereotype because they sent us with board games and cards to the men's day room, and the ladies on our trip took nail polish and coloring books to the women's day room. This was a bit awkward at first. It seemed kind of weird to try and get people who were "down" to play games, but that was my pre-conceived notions. We set up some tables with chess, checkers, Connect Four, UNO, etc. And we had enough room indoors to play Corn Hole (bean-bag toss). At first, I tried asking a couple guys to play corn hole, and they declined. Myself and a member of our group decided to just start playing and see if anyone wanted to join...no one did. After that game, we moved over to the game table and played Connect Four. One of the guests in the day room came over and asked to play, I was glad to have someone join in so I obliged. I'm not going to lie, I assumed it would be an easy win. Most of the folks have some kind of mental or emotional health issue going on in one way or another, and this guy looked like he fit right into that mold. To my surprise, I lost. I got to aggressive going for the win and didn't pay attention. Shame on me for stereotyping him and elevating myself. It was a good game. He didn't want a rematch though.
The next guy shared his name with us, Adolfo. Three of us began playing UNO with Adolfo. He told us his dreams of writing songs and being a musician. If I remember correctly, he plays guitar and sings. We encouraged him and had a fun time teaching him to play UNO. Towards the end of that game, a guy named Jason came up and began telling us his story. Jason looked clean and very well taken care of, and he was in a wheel chair. He said when he was a kid his dream was to be a major league baseball player. Then at age 12 he was at a Halloween party and trying to impress a girl who was already taken, he took off running across the street. When he turned around to come back, he didn't check for cars and was hit and suffered an injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down. As he grew up he went to a couple different colleges and became a successful graphic designer. He eventually attended seminary at DTS in Dallas, TX, and felt called to be a pastor. While in seminary he was an apartment manager with a good friend of his. But along this time he also became an alcoholic, and that's when things began falling apart. One night after being at a party with his serious girlfriend, he was drunk and knew he shouldn't drive home. So he parked in the parking lot of McDonald's nearby and fell asleep. He awoke to someone tapping on the glass, he assumed it was the police. Instead, a guy said, "Wanna get high?" Before he could really get himself awake and respond, the guy had walked around to the passenger side of his car, opened the door, and got in the car. Jason watched him light up a bong of some sort, and soon joined him. It turns out the drug was crack cocaine. Jason was hooked, and his life spiraled out of control and he lost pretty much everything. That was twelve years ago I think. He's been clean for a few months now and working on staying that way and getting off the streets and back to graphic designing. It was amazing to hear his story and how willing he was to tell it. Keep Jason in your prayers with me.
Shortly after Jason finished, it was time to clean up and head to our next stop: Alexandria House. Alexandria House is transitional housing for women and women with children. When you drive down the street it is full of tall apartment buildings, and in between are these two houses that don't look very big from the front. The ministry was started by a Catholic nun and some friends a couple decades or so ago. They don't receive grant funding because if they did, they'd have to kick residents out after 90 days. They want to give these women enough time to turn things around and make it on their own. Behind one of the homes, there is a building that houses their preschool and after school programs for the kids that stay there. Behind the other house is a garage. Right now, the garage is full of stuff they will sell in a thrift sale. They hold two each month. The first is for the residents to take whatever they need/want. The second sale is open to the community and people can make donations for what they want. Alexandria house provides a safe place for women and their children to live and learn. While we were there, we wiped out all of the cabinets in their kitchen, and stacked up some of the items for the upcoming thrift sale. This ministry serves a great purpose because often times women have no where to go if they face domestic violence or other situations that put them out of their home. I was very impressed how they help the women learn and grow as well as give them a place to stay. Most stay for about a year to 18 months until they "graduate" from the program and have a job and housing of their own. It was great to hear their success.
That was what we really came to LA to do, to volunteer, but more importantly to hear the stories of people who have experienced life much different from what we have. Those stories impacted my story, and because of that, I can reflect and ask myself, "What story am I telling with my life?" By doing all the good I can, to all the people I can, in all the places I can, I hope my life story reflects the Gospel story much like the people we met this week, a story moving from death to life.
After we finished up lunch, we headed to downtown LA to the offices of Homeboy Industries. This ministry focuses on people who have been a part of gangs and/or incarcerated and provides services to get them a healthy life outside of gangs/jail/prison. There are classes for all different areas of life. They have a bakery and a cafe (the food is REALLY good!) that provides jobs for these folks, and connects them with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. We heard stories from multiple people of how their life has turned around because of Homeboy Industries. One of their major offerings is tattoo removal. This helps people be able to get employment and to cut ties and start a new chapter of life. The people who are in the program at Homeboy Industries consider this their "family." They are connected and help each other and encourage one another. You can learn more about this ministry and the man who founded it, Father Greg Boyle, at their website. www.homeboyindustries.org
After our tour, it was just a short walk across the street to China Town, which was a neat little stop to check out. I wish we had time for a tour of Dodger Stadium too, but I'll have to make another trip for that.
What I Learned
This is something I really learned all week long. From the moment I stepped off the plane in LA, the main thing I noticed was the diversity. Ethnic and racial diversity, socio-economic diversity, religious diversity, etc. It's all there in a relatively small space. You don't see that as much in the Midwest so it stuck out to me, but for most people in LA it's just normal. Which, to me, is a great thing! The thing I learned was that we still have a lot in common with each other even if we have different backgrounds. We can emphasize our shared experiences and create community around that instead of emphasizing our pre-conceived stereotypes and divisions. It has inspired me to seek out more diverse friendships in my community.
I had the great opportunity to go with college students to Hollywood, CA for a week of serving in the LA community and doing some sight-seeing. Most of my social media posts this week focused on the sight-seeing simply because it was easy to post those. If all you had seen were those posts, you'd think I'd just been on a fun vacation trip. In reality, we spent about 6 hours per day for 4 days serving and touring different non-profit agencies in Los Angeles. We bookended the trip with some of the touristy sites.
Monday - Day 1
Our first stop of the week is in downtown LA, in a part of town known as "Skid Row." I had heard of the 80s band by that name and vaguely knew that it was the poor part of town. I did not expect to see what I saw.
We set out to serve a meal at the food kitchen of Union Rescue Mission. We were running a few minutes early, so we drove up and down the streets of Skid Row. I thought we had entered a Third-World country. Up and down the sidewalks are tents. Some are camping tents, some are tarps in the shape of a tent. The garbage was spread out all around as if it had been searched through multiple times. One corner must have been the bike shop because broken bicycles and parts were piled high. It seemed like miles of tents, a tent city. It had been raining that week, and it was overcast that morning, which added to the dreariness of the sight. (The photo to the right doesn't do it justice, please check the video below.) Skid Row is about 50 square blocks or 0.4 square miles.
We entered the Union Rescue Mission and stopped at the Security desk to get directions to the kitchen. Just as overwhelming as the tents was the sheer numbers of people. The tents were big enough to house multiple people. There were people up and down the sidewalks, and as we entered URM, there were lots of people waiting for services. Later on our tour, we were told there were 800 beds at URM, and they put out extra cots as needed for emergency shelter, which brought their total to around 1300 people staying there. In all of LA there are about 47,000 people experiencing homelessness (though other numbers put it much higher than that, I guess it depends on how/who you count), about 2,500 of those live in the skid row area.
That day, was a special day because In-n-Out Burger had donated the meal: cheeseburger (freshly cooked on sight) and potato chips. Along with that we served salads, fruit, pastries, and Gatorade to drink. The guests saw it as a real treat.
What I learned
After seeing Skid Row and then experiencing URM, I was very encouraged that people's lives were being transformed. It is hard if not impossible to see progress made on Skid Row. There are a multitude of reasons that people end up on the streets and experience homelessness, and they all require different treatments. I was saddened that a part of our United States looks like a Third-World country, but I was encouraged by the stories of triumph we heard from people at URM. On this first day, I mainly learned that these are people like me who are experiencing homelessness. Often times we put them all in a category or class: homeless. In reality, many of us are much closer to experiencing homelessness than we realize. There's not a one-size-fits-all solution. There may not be solutions on a large-scale. But we can take care of people and give them the opportunity to be transformed. As I return to my town, I hope to get connected to local organizations and help them navigate the multitude of issues facing people who are experiencing homelessness. My first step will be to listen and learn.
Watch this video to see what a street looks like in Skid Row.
I am a United Methodist Pastor, but I'm trying to re-define that as a Missionary sent to my corner of the USA. What would it look like for you to envision your life as a Christian more like a Missionary than a Church-goer?