Live a life of privilege pushing back the last, the lost, the least of these to dull the edge of conscience with conceit. Live a life and see the world. Feel its weight on the shoulders of the least of these. It spins and twirls without rest or relief.
I hummed the Relient K song and adjusted the sleeping bag under my arm while attempting to sip a Mountain Dew. My duffle bag slipped from my other arm as I raised the drink. Frustrated, I opted to forgo the soda’s pleasure until I had descended the stairs between the dorms and main campus at The Master’s College and deposited my baggage at the gazebo where everyone had gathered. There were about thirty of us in all, students who had decided to go to First Evangelical Free Church in downtown Los Angeles for the school’s annual Outreach Week. I cast a wary eye about the group, spotting several people who I’d met before—TJ Morsey, Peter Mockary, Marcus LeGault, Lee Davis, and of course, Adam Carmichael. Adam had been my WOW (Week of Welcome) leader a few months before, and had also been selected to lead this group. I raised my eyebrows as I surveyed the group; a few pretty girls had apparently decided to join the First EV Free team too. Four days of serving the church in an impoverished area with great people—it looked like God had some good thing in store.
Three hours later, we all stood on a sidewalk under the blazing sun. I wrinkled my nose in disgust at the smell of urine behind the dumpster, wiped away the sweat that had begun to bead on my brow, and tried to focus on what our guide was saying. The senior Pastor at First EV Free, Douglas Moore, was giving us a brief tour of the area surrounding the church. The church was situated in the urban heart of Lost Angeles, surrounded by the 110 Freeway, a police building, and a neighborhood of overpriced apartments. Just a block or two away ran a street called Pico Boulevard, dotted with small markets, Spanish signs, and run down shops. On the other side of the highway, less than a mile away, towered the Staples Center—home of the Lakers basketball team. I continued to glance around the city as Pastor Doug spoke of the violence, drugs, and poverty that dominated the region. For ever sports car that drove by passed a man pushing a shopping cart. I marveled at how the most luxurious and desolate places in America could exist in such close proximity of each other.
The tour dragged on for another thirty minutes as Pastor Doug continued explaining how landlords packed the houses, often with illegal aliens, and charged them ridiculously high prices. He spoke of how there had been shootings and rampant drug use and prostitution here in the past, and how stores took advantage of the poor by forcing you to buy two gallons of milk (that they didn’t have enough space in their refrigerator for), or pay far too much for one gallon. Every few minutes, a grizzled old man or woman would approach and start mumbling something in Spanish, presumably asking for money. I glanced at my new plaid shorts and lightly tanned skin, fingering the cell phone and wallet in my pocket. The contrast was vivid. I didn’t belong here, none of us did.
We arrived back at the church, taking a few moments to pray before being introduced to Kathryn Lohr. Kat, as everyone called her, studied at Master’s but lived down here in the Nehemiah House, an boarding house supported by the college and church that offered students the chance to live in the neighborhoods here and minister to the poor on a regular basis.
“Welcome guys, it’s so awesome to have you all here.” She smiled and went on to explain that we had two options for serving the rest of that afternoon: helping out with the church’s after-school program or working with neighborhood children at a street called 12th place. I sat there numbly as she picked out ten volunteers to help with the church’s program. The rest of us gathered up blankets, balls, picture books, hula hoops, and other children’s items and headed off to what I figured was the after-school hangout several blocks away.
We marched enthusiastically down to 12th place in a matter of minutes, ready to finally do some hands on service, only to find four or five Hispanic children waiting for us on a small patch of grass between the sidewalk and apartments. I found out later that school had not yet gotten out at the time, so we really had no point in being there, but we could not turn back. Immediately, Kat and several of the girls in the group swooped down upon these kids, outnumbering them two to one but eager to help them with homework, read them books, and love them in any way possible. I leaned against a tree with my hands in my pockets. The children’s parents stood several yards off, surveying us coldly. Swallowing and diverting my eyes from their hard glances, I walked over to a circle of guys from our group who had begun to kick a soccer ball around. My stomach knotted, I had never played much soccer, and my beat-up gray loafers were by no means conducive to athletics, but I joined in anyway. It was better than twiddling my thumbs while all the girls labored over a few kids. Minutes passed like hours as I gently kicked the ball back and forth around the circle, waiting for some poor person to drop in my lap. “What am I doing here?” I thought. Peter, TJ, Marcus, and Adam had all gone to help with the church, so I kept silent, not in the mood for conversation anyway.
Nearly half an hour passed before more children began showing up. I forced a smile, trying to do at least something productive as several kids joined our circle and began passing the ball around. As more children joined, Faris, one of the older children in the group named Curvan proposed that we play a soccer game in an open alley behind the apartments. I jumped at the idea, finally something to do. We quickly formed into two roughly equal teams and started playing. I assumed the goalie position, watching the game and shouting out compliments to the children with as much care and love as I could muster. Most of them were overweight, surprising given the fact that most lived at or near the level of poverty. Occasionally a ball would come near me, but I contributed little for the most part. What good was this? Could a single pickup soccer game really do anything for these kids and their parents who couldn’t speak English? I pondered these things as the sun began to sink behind the houses and trees. After an hour or two, we picked up our supplies and began trudging back to the church, while the kids departed for their dirty, overcrowded homes. I sighed in hollow mixture of relief and confusion, shifting the basket of books from one shoulder to the other. We still had three more days of this?
Despite spending much of the day in the sun and having a thin mattress that softened the hard sanctuary floor, I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag that night. “God, I can’t do this, I don’t want to be here.” I thought, “How can I be so cold? How can this be so unfulfilling? Please, please, help me to love these people, because right now I don’t. Right now I don’t want anything to do with this. I need Your grace, God. I need the cross…”