Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Last, the Lost, the Least: Part Three

For the start of this series, go to Part One or Part Two.

Step into a spacious place where pride and right will give way to the least of these to know the face of who a man can be.

I woke to the sound of voices and footsteps. Someone had turned on the light in the sanctuary, but it still looked dark outside. Rubbing my eyes, I groped for my cell phone and flipped it open—four fifteen! I stood up and stumbled toward the middle of the building where several guys had gathered.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

John Freiburg, the assistant pastor at First EV Free, walked in the door.

“Come on guys, get up! We’re going on a little field trip.”

“Field trip?” I thought, “What? It’s four in the morning!” Gradually, people began to dress and make their way outside, so I changed my pants, donned a hat and sweater, and headed out to where cars had started to line up.

“You’re going to be driving around Los Angeles.” I heard John addressing several students on the sidewalk, “You won’t have to worry much about traffic. Just follow the instructions on your paper. Think about the situation there, and spend some time praying there.”

I groggily stumbled into the last car with an open seat, full of three girls as providence would have it. In a few moments, we were speeding down the 110, headed even deeper into the city.

I glanced out the window warily, a mix of fear, apprehension, and repulsion in my face. To our left and behind us stretched Skid Row—several blocks of downtown Lost Angeles set apart as a place for the homeless, insane, and outcasts. Here lived the dregs of society, and here came the regiments of The Master’s College First EV Free outreach team. The paper instructed us to get out, walk around, and pray and talk with people. Everyone in the car stared out the window at the dark and mysterious street, hesitant to get out. People trudged along the sidewalk in various directions, void of any urgency or purpose; others sat on the curb and smoked. Most were black, and dressed in a hodgepodge assortment of dirty clothing: sweatshirts, beanies, old tennis shoes, frayed pants, even a leather jacket once in a while. Their faces looked blank and empty, staring towards the ground or out into space.

“Do we really need to get out?” Kammy, the girl next to me, asked.

“I don’t know, why don’t we just pray?” Offered the girl driving, “Wait, look!” Kat’s group had parked near us and started crossing the street. We sprung out of the car and called out to them.

“Hey, can we join you guys?”

“Well, it’s better with smaller groups,” Kat replied, “but come on.” She led us to the curb opposite where we had parked. A black man with short hair and a scraggly goatee stood there, wringing his hands and staring out across the street.

“Hey there,” Kat said, “how are you doing sir?” The man turned as if seeing us for the first time, then broke into what I assumed was a smile.

“Well I’s doing just fine, thank you. You here to give me stuff or convert me or something?”

“No,” she answered, “We’re just here talking to people. I’m Kat.”

“Ike, nice to meet you.” he said simply, shaking her hand, and we all introduced ourselves to him.

“Do you sing?” The question caught us off guard. Kat looked around at us, smiling shyly.

“What do you guys think? We can certainly try. What should we sing?”

“Uh, amazing grace?” TJ, who had been in Kat’s car, offered hesitantly. Enough of us seemed to know it, so we circled around the man and started singing a cappella, quietly at first, but growing in confidence.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” Ike closed his eyes and raised his hands, swaying gently with our off-key voices. We made it through the first verse well enough, but started fading out after “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” No one could remember the exact lyrics. I thought I knew them, but had no intention of carrying on solo. As our voices stopped gracelessly, Ike took off his glasses and wiped his eyes.

“That was beautiful. You know these past weeks been difficult for me, being sick, no job.” I could only stand there like a statue, listening as he started to pour out his life to us, and trying to bring some form of comfort through my presence.

“Would you like to pray together?” Kat asked after several minutes,

“Yes please.” Ike raised his head up to heave and held his hands up. “Oh mighty father, we come before you now, humble, Lord. We come to ask for forgiveness, because of Jesus Christ…” I listened to his words as best as I could. The prayer was actually pretty solid, but I couldn’t help but question the legitimacy of his faith. Did God even hear and heed the prayers of a rebel like Ike? Was the Holy Spirit present in anyone here but our little group?

Eventually we left Ike with a blessing and moved on down the block towards a line of people waiting for some kind of medical assistance from a local rescue mission. Within minutes, Kat struck up another conversation, this time talking to a white man with a ponytail and baseball cap. A few feet away, TJ had also started speaking with a grizzled old man with glasses. I stood close to Kat, silently trying to take in my surroundings while keeping up with the conversation. The place reeked of urine, alcohol, body odor, and cigarettes, only narrowly failing to merit the adjective: “overpowering.”

“You should come to our church sometime,” Kat was saying.

“Eh, what kind of church is it? Methodist, catholic, protestant, Lutheran?”

“It’s, an evangelical free church, that’s a protestant domination.”

The man paused in thought, then started musing, “Catholic, evangelical, even mormon or Buddhist. I don’t know why people get so uptight and fight about it. They all lead to the same place. Yeah, I’ll try to check it out. Sunday at 9:00? Where did you say it was again?” I bit my lip and fumed in silence, resisting the urge to blurt out “You’re wrong!” and lay down a theological beating on him. Where’s the love in letting someone go on believing in that? The conversation meandered on, until finally Kat glanced at her watch. The church wanted us back by 7:30, so we bid farewell to the people in line, returned to our cars, and drove away—silenced and sobered by the morning.

“You are no longer students of The Master’s College,” Jon Freiberg’s voice shattered any further meditations I had about Skid Row, “as of now, until an undeclared time, you are all single mothers here in downtown LA.” I giggled at the thought of playing the role of a mother, but Jon was not joking. “You no longer have any of your possessions. We have ‘money’ for you with which to buy new clothes, housing, food, and transportation. Some of you will get more than others. I also need two people to be homeless.” Immediately TJ and Marcus raised their hands, and Jon laughed at them,

“Okay, you guys don’t have anything. Not even clothes, you’ll have to beg it off of other people.” He walked around the circle our group had formed in the church’s basement and handed out a small envelope of monopoly money to each “mother.”

“It will cost you twenty dollars a day for rent, three for transportation. Clothes are five dollars per article. Meals will cost you seven bucks. You get to keep two personal items from what you’ve really bought.” Blank faces appeared on everyone for a moment.

“Wait, you’re serious?”

Jon looked at the girl who had asked the question and smiled mischievously, “The goal is to get a taste of what it’s like to be poor. Welcome to the First EV Free Church Poverty Simulation.”

Four hours later, I found myself on the streets of Los Angeles, sporting tan khaki pants rolled up to the ankles, a brown and off-white striped collared shirt, and a sleeping bag slung over my shoulder. Peter walked at my side, studying the list for our scavenger hunt. A few feet behind us followed two girls named Ellie and Analisa. Our mission: to spend three hours traveling around the Pico Street area, engaging in activities normally associated with the poor or homeless. This included a bus ride, collecting cans and bottles, finding food, and acquiring money. We certainly looked the part, with our sleeping bags, plastic bags, unkempt hair, and plain clothes. I looked down the street, with its hole-in-the-wall shops, cracked sidewalks, and Hispanic population. Behind the shop, a homeless man dug through a dumpster. I couldn’t bring myself to ask these people for money or help, I just couldn’t.

“Okay, keep on the lookout for cans and bottles. Where should we go first?”

“How about we find out where we can get free food?” Peter said. That sounded good to me; even though I had no idea where to begin. Thankfully, Ellie had grown up as a missionary kid in Panama, and spoke fluent Spanish. We stopped the first Mexican woman we passed and—I assumed—asked her where we could find a place with free food. There was a soup kitchen on Pico and Alameda, the woman thought, and it was only a few blocks away. Ellie thanked her and we moved on, stopping at every trash can to see if we could find anything salvageable. In English class last year, I had read an essay about dumpster diving, and was determined to put the tips I had learned to go use. Nothing trustworthy emerged except for a few pieces of celery, one of which I ate only so that I could say I had eaten out of a dumpster. Occasionally, we tried to go into a bakery and beg for food, but to no avail. The owners of every store we entered glanced at us skeptically, and the people on the street shunned us, refusing even to make eye contact. I tried to put myself in their shoes looking at me; how would I have responded to the sight of myself like this on the street?

After several minutes of walking down Pico, a gray SUV drove by and stopped at a stoplight not far ahead.

“Hey! Need a ride?” The man driving shouted back at us.

“Yeah, we’re looking for Pico and Alameda.” Peter replied, pointing down the street. “I think it’s that way.” The man pulled off onto a side road, and we ran over to his car.

“Pico and Alameda?”

“Yeah, a lady told us we could find food there.”

“Uh, I’m not sure, I know there’s an Alameda that way. You guys out here on your own? Get in, we’ll see if we can find it.”

Peter and I shrugged, “Okay.” Throwing our bags in the space behind us, the four of us piled in the back seat. The man extended his hand,

“I’m Tony, nice to meet you.” He had short gray hair and a goatee, and his teeth were crooked and discolored. “Tobacco stains?” I wondered.

We drove under the freeway and passed the Staples Center. As soon as the stadium faded out of sight behind other buildings, the city quickly began to degenerate. Street vendors crowded the sidewalks, and one or two intimidating thugs leaned against the wall in nearly every alley; I saw no white people.

“I don’t know what exactly you’re looking for, but I hope it ain’t down here. White people come down here, and they don’t come back out. Yeah, you’d get f***ed up in a hurry here.” I winced, “Oh Lord, what have we gotten ourselves into? Is this were it all ends, on Outreach Week?”

“Alameda…does it even connect to Pico?” The man continued talking as we drove on, block after block, farther away from the church and what relative safety the opposite side of the highway afforded. He went on to explain—in colorful language—how he was on probation for drug use, but had been clean for a long time.

“You like hard rock?” We shrugged, so put in a mixed CD that was just out of my personal taste range, and continued talking. He had acquired the SUV thanks to clever use of the welfare system and genuine work. The farther we drove, the more he expressed his doubt that this food place at Pico and Alameda actually existed, and the more he tried to get to the root of our alleged predicament.

“Alright, you’ve been pretty quiet back there. What’s your story, come on, out with it.” I glanced at Peter. The poverty simulation worked far too well. This guy actually thought we were runaways.

“Well,” Peter began hesitantly (he would go on to assume the role of our spokesperson) “I turned eighteen, and decided to just leave. My dad had had enough of me.” I nodded in agreement. Yep, we had “left” home alright.

“We came down from Santa Clarita, and are just out here to find what we can. Kinda start afresh.”

“Just had enough with you pops, huh?” Tony appeared to believe us, “I don’t know about this Pico and Alameda sh**, but I can take you to another place a few miles from here. They’ll take you in, give you showers, lunch, but you have to be in before 4:00. If we go now, you can probably—” he stopped as a sign ahead read “dead end.” So much for Pico and Alameda.

“That’s it, I’m taking you guys there.”

“No, no! We’ve, uh, got some friends back where you picked us up. We said we’d meet back up with them. Can you just take us back?”

“You sure, I know what I’m talking about. They’ll do you up nice at this place.”

I leaned over to Peter, stomach churning, “Should we tell him?”

“No,” He spoke up in response to Tony, “Just take us back to where you found us. We really appreciate all you’ve told us though.”

“Okay, but be sure to check it out. Here’s the address, when you find your friends, be sure to go straight there.” He wheeled the SUV around, back through the ghetto. “And be sure to stay off drugs, kid. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but just don’t go there. Good luck.”

My heart beat did not begin to slow down until we were safely out of the car and watching Tony drive off. Later on, I would discover that our paper of instructions had specifically forbidden hitchhiking. I felt sick.

“Pete, I think that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”

After a dinner that failed to compensate for the breakfast and lunch I had missed, the poverty simulation continued into the night. No one had the “money” to afford a room indoors, so we laid down what few blankets and sleeping bags we had in the front yard of the Nehemiah House. Throughout the trip, our group had often spent time hanging out, eating, and praying at the Nehemiah House, but we would find no such luxuries there tonight. Instead, I and a student named James decided to unzip our sleeping bags and share them with Marcus and TJ, who had nothing besides the clothes on their back to keep warm. Marcus fished several pieces of cardboard out of a nearby trash can, and we laid them out as bedding. I rubbed my hands together and shivered. The two days before were quite warm, but a cold front had hit the city just that afternoon. I laughed dryly—perfect timing. Curling up under and around a few meager feet of my sleeping bag, I tucked my shoes under my head and tried to find a comfortable position. For a few minutes, I tried to avoid contact with TJ, who was tightly packed within the four of us like cordwood, but eventually gave up and rested my body against his. Warmth ranked higher on my list of priorities than awkwardness.

Despite the long day that started at four in the morning and ended after midnight, sleep was slow in coming. I tossed and turned, trying to keep my toes warm and my head comfortable against my rough canvas slip-ons.

“TJ, I hope you don’t mind if I, uh, put my leg here.”

He twisted around and patted me affectionately, “It’s okay Andrew. We’re homeless, remember?”

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