Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Last, the Lost, the Least: Part Four

For the rest of this series, go to part one, part two, or part three.

His image shown where we give our lives, our time, our own to feed, to clothe those in His image we have left alone. We all, we all wear dignity. God help the blind like me. Finding at last a voice we cry and see with clear, unblinking eyes.

The last organized activity of the week featured a walk to MacArthur Park. We started off midway through the morning, headed—thank goodness—in the opposite direction down Pico Street that Tony had driven us. I left my sleeping bag back on the church, betting on the chance that Jon would decided to end the poverty simulation before nightfall. I ran my hand through my greasy hair and patted my empty stomach, only partially satisfied by the bowl of Fruit Loops a few hours ago. He’d better end it soon.

When we arrived at the park, Jon sat everyone down and spoke of the city. In the bible, the city is portrayed as a place of refuge and safety. Clearly, this is how God intended people to live together. After all, heaven, God’s very dwelling place, is a city. I thought of all the news stories we hear about Los Angeles. Over on the sidewalk, a homeless man peddled his bike. This park used to be the drug capital of the city, so Jon had warned us to watch were we sat. How could things have gone so wrong in this place? Why are all the seminary grads going to small town churches in the Midwest? Why do we so quickly brush off the inner city? I shifted uncomfortably as Jon detailed our final task: to walk around the park and talk to people. Everyone divided into twos and threes, and we split up. Lee, my companion, was a heavyset freshman from Colorado. Neither of us spoke acceptable Spanish, and neither of us possessed exceptional social skills. We walked around the park silently, sizing up the various people seated around the dirty lake in the middle of the park. Other groups of students had started talking to people. My heart began pounding out of my chest and my mind went blank. I tried to quickly formulate a few conversation starters in my mind. “God, I don’t want to do this, I can’t. Please, help me.” A middle aged Hispanic woman—everyone was Hispanic—sat alone under a tree on our left. I nudged Lee, “What about her?”

“Okay,” he murmured. I tried to put on my most innocent and disarming face as we sat down next to the woman.

“Hi there, can we sit here and talk to you for a few minutes?”

“No English.”

“Oh,” I sat for several lengthy seconds, vainly attempting to recall something from my three years of high school Spanish.

“No hablo mucho espanol…Adios.” We stood up abruptly continued on, walking slowly along the edge of the pond for several minutes before I pointed out another person, this time a man who appeared to be in his twenties.

“May we sit here?” He nodded.

“So,” I began, “um, you from around here?”

“No speak English.”

“Hmm.” This time we waited for a minute or two, staring out across the park, before getting up and moving on. Three more times, Lee and I tried to engage people, but we faltered at the insurmountable language barrier before firing a proverbial shot. Did anyone speak English here?

Dejected, we eventually wandered back to the group’s meeting place. “God, I tried. I really did. Can You ask more than that? I accomplished nothing!” I tried to throw myself into His arms and rest in His sovereignty as the other students gradually strayed back, “No Lord, you don’t ask more, and you don’t need results. All you ask is that I show some love to these people.”

The walk back to the church took too long, and I pondered the day’s events as everyone around me talked about all the great experiences they had. “I want You to use me God. I won’t look at the poor the same way again.” The more I looked at the situation inside myself, the less room I found for depression and self-pity. “Somehow, someway, You used me this week, and You’ll use me again.” I had come face to face with reality today, and resolved not to forget it.

My mouth watered in anticipation as I surveyed the backyard of the Nehemiah House. Just a few minutes ago, Jon Freiberg had officially terminated the poverty simulation. Forty or so chairs sat around five or six tables in the middle of the lawn, enough to seat our entire group and the house’s residents. To my right, everyone had begun to line up behind a table crowded with carne asada, beans, rice, salsa, and tortillas. Some had already made it through the line and were crossing over to the drink table, where several sodas and an ice bucket rested in a beautiful array. Just a few feet away from this, Jon Freiburg stood behind the barbecue, flipping several pieces of thinly cut steak. The smell drifted over the lawn, teasing those who had not yet gotten their food. I could hardly stand it. Two solid meals over the past two days had taken their toll, and while not physically starving, I was hungry. I fumbled with my plate and utensils in my haste to pile on the delicious food. Beans splattered across my plate and rice fell down on to the table. I grabbed one of the pieces of meat from my steaming heap and shoved it my mouth, filled a cup nearly to the brim with orange soda, and sat down at a table across from Peter. I paused for a moment in reverence and thankfulness,

“A fitting exclamation point to the week!” I grasped a tortilla, carne asada, beans and rice spilling out both sides in torrents, and shoved it in my face. As the meal progressed, we tried vainly to capture the experience with words,

“Absolutely amazing.”

“Mmmmm…wow. I mean it’s just…wow.”

“Later generations will sing of this meal someday.”

Half an hour later, I leaned back in my chair and moaned. “Not only will I never look at the homeless the same again,” I thought, “but I’ll never look at food the same again. I guess it really is true that you never know what you have until it’s gone.” I glanced at the students seated around me—Peter, TJ, Marcus, Lee, and the others. A bond had been forged between us, something almost supernatural, perhaps the first strands of a cord that would be finished in heaven.

Despite the cold, my mind drifted over the past week, gradually returning to the present meal and moving on into the future. The normalcy that was The Master’s College stood as a banner of comfort, security, and good against the background of no showers, Hispanics, and empty stomachs. “Friends, warm dorm rooms, challenging classes, my ‘real’ life…it’ll be nice to get back to that…” I opened my eyes and stared at Jon as he closed the barbeque and started cleaning up. A solid education from Master’s, and he had come to spend the rest of his life here. Images of Ike and the fat little boy at 12th Place appeared in my mind. “No, Master’s isn’t real life for me. This is real life. The past three days was the world—all the brokenness, ugliness, oppression, and ungodliness that the United States had to offer.” I thought of the way people had looked at me on the street, of reading a book to an innocent little child, of tossing and turning on cardboard all night, of the young man on the park bench who spoke no English. I couldn’t just walk away from all that and get my degree. They needed love and grace every bit as much as I did, and that was the only difference between us. I sighed, searching for something appealing, for joy, for a steady stream of compassion and love. “God, please give me Your grace, I want to love these people…I…I do love these people, and I can’t go on living like this.” Several long days had passed, but I could finally see my world beginning to turn upside-down. No, there would be no going back now. The song I had listened to before the start of the trip began to play in the back of my mind. Yes, the very image of God shines in these people—however marred and clouded it may be—in even the last, the lost, the least.

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