We pulled onto Skid Row, parking in front of tents and lawn chairs and cardboard makeshifts. You could smell the intimidation stronger than the urine and weed. People stared. They questioned. They asked what we had brought them. This place was for the hopeless. It was the final destination spot for thousands of broken people.
This area was no joke, but we decided not to look at it any differently than the other places we’d been. People were people, no matter how rough the edges looked. We wanted to have a birthday party. We had a car packed with gifts, and balloons, popsicles, and snacks. They kept asking what we were bringing, like this was something that had happened before. They thought they had us figured out. Bri kept telling them we didn’t come to give them stuff, we came to celebrate who they were.
They didn’t know how to respond, but they were definitely intrigued.
Within minutes, we saw the walls begin to fall. Kevin and Bri drove through the streets beckoning large masses of homeless to come. Some said absolutely, and the tough ones kept asking “why?” The toughest and most skeptical ones were the ones we were after. We simply told them we wanted to celebrate their birthdays, and they should just give it a shot. 30 minutes later they began to arrive. From surrounding blocks and streets, they walked over to see why a bunch of college kids were trying to plan a birthday party on San Julian street, apparently the most dangerous part of Skid Row.
Person by person, we shook their hand as we looked them in the eye. “Happy Birthday,” we told them as we handed them handwritten birthday card.
The people we encountered, the stories we heard, the “homes” we visited, we will never unsee them. We will never forget their challenging words, because in the midst of a hopeless hub, we saw hope in some of the most broken of eyes.
We walked and talked, inviting them to come jam with us and grab a popsicle.
One man sitting on his piece of cardboard wouldn’t tell me his name. He said the only name I needed to remember was the Lord’s. As our conversation was dwindling, he yelled after me, “How big is your faith?” Gripped, I turned back towards him. How you do answer a question like that? I didn’t know how to respond. “Pretty big,” I responded lamely. “Really?” He said challenging me.
“Is it big enough to break up a murder right over there?” He pointed across the street. “Is it that big?”
I looked into his eyes. They were some of the deepest eyes I had ever come across. His face said so much. Every ridge and crease on his face telling a different story. And he had seen more with those eyes than I’ll ever probably see.
Bri went up to him, making small talk at first, having no idea where this conversation would lead. He asked where we were from. “Tulsa,” we said. He responded so casually by saying he went to school there as well, back in the 90’s. He didn’t look dirty like the rest of the people we had encountered. He wasn’t unshaven and he wasn’t in rags. He was clean cut and smoking a fat joint. This man told us he used to go to ORU. We were speechless.
“You’re looking at a backslider,” he said trying to shave off some of the surprise.
He lived off campus at first because he was married, but then moved on when he got divorced. And here he sat, on Skid Row, in downtown Los Angeles. Bri asked him if he believed Jesus’ love still existed for him. He said “yes.” He told us that he was beginning to understand that Jesus loved a broken bride… This is difficult theology for most of us to wrap our minds around, maybe uncomfortable even. We hear things like that and think, how is that possible? But if we only knew that the people on our street corners were a lot like us, maybe we’d look at them differently. Or maybe even look at them at all. If we only knew that they had a family once. If we only took Jesus seriously when he said He was in the least of these. When we pass them on the streets, we are passing Jesus. By the time we left, he asked if he could follow our journey, and that he loved what we were doing. He said that it mattered.
She could hear the music from Katie’s guitar. Someone called over to the tent. Her boyfriend told me she could sing. I told her to come out of the tent and come with me. She hesitated at first, but I wasn’t taking no for an answer. She got out of the tent, wearing a swimsuit top and a black sweater with holes in it. We instantly locked arms and started walking. There was something I was drawn to about her. I told her who she was. That she was seen. And loved. And deserved more than these streets could offer her. She said she had no confidence. She said she was a whore. That she was schizophrenic and suffered from depression. She said to me,
“I can’t stop thinking about what my life is. I can’t stop thinking about my ex-boyfriend. Or how I don’t want to do bad things but I always do them anyway. And I can’t stop thinking about Jesus. But you don’t understand – this is reality for me. I’m not an actress making this up. This is my life.”
She had a scar along her cheek from getting beaten up. She was in shambles. When we prayed, the gloves on her hands were wet with something other than water. She was rough around the edges, yes. But do you know what it’s like when someone unlikely starts telling you that you’re going to do great things? Do you know what it’s like to see someone that should have no hope leave with a glimmer of light in their eyes? Let me tell you – it is worth every uncomfortable situation, every rejection, every question, and every dark day. Because it is about the hope. It always was, and always will be.
Katie dismissed him at first, not knowing if she was supposed to be playing live music or talking to people. She went on to other conversations for a while until the Lord stopped her in her tracks.
“What if that was me? Would you treat me like that?”
She went back to him, knowing their conversation mattered. She sat in the streets for 3 hours, and found her “person.” She found the “one.” He was her person. He asked if she’d play her old music; music that told stories of seasons passed, and words that had been unspoken for a long time. She sat there, bringing up old dreams, and sharing music with her new friend. He was pulling out the gold in her. Walking away that day, she said he was like Jesus. He walks out to Skid Row to remember where he came from. He wants to know people. He wants to hear their stories. This is coming from a man who’s written two books. Living near Skid Row, and taking the time to see people and treat them like they always should’ve been treated, no matter what he looked like to the rest of the world.
Skid Row is a dark place. We left as the sun was setting, no one really wanting to leave. Because in the midst of the black and the white dreary streets, we began to see the color. We began to feel the hope that was rising. We began to recognize the tents as homes to Chris, corners to Mark, and resting places for Mary. It took us forever to leave that day because a piece of our heart felt comfortable there, almost like it was marking us. Waving to our new friends, we were reminded of how worth it following Jesus really is. Even to the gutters and trash cans. And even though we didn’t change all of Skid Row, we caught a glimpse of Jesus, and that, is enough.