Friday, June 24, 2005

An L.A. Vacation Remembered

I’ve been bachin’ it for close to a week now while Nancy is in Los Angeles with our niece. The reason I’m here and they’re in L.A. is that the trip is principally a high school graduation gift from us to Rebecca. With that in mind Nancy planned the trip with lots of fun things to do, especially shopping. Now I like fun things, but shopping is not one of them as far as I’m concerned.

When Nancy asked me if I wanted to go along I remembered a trip that Nancy and I took to Chicago with two foreign exchange students a year and a half ago. The one day of that trip that will forever live in my mind is the day that I had to chaperone the girls on a tour of the Magnificent Mile. Nancy was not feeling well and the duty fell to me. We spent ten hours going from store to store. Ten hours! I suppose I could have called it off at some point, but I didn’t have the heart to do it. So, they shopped and I watched. I thought about that when it came to this trip and decided that even a week with someone slapping me with a baseball bat would be more fun than shopping with two eager women. So, I’m here and they’re in L.A.

I spoke to Nancy this morning and got some of the skinny. They’ve seen Sea World, Disneyland, done the Hollywood homes tour, and today they’re doing Universal Studios.

After she hung up I got to work on a couple of projects around the house, the kind of lazy man’s projects. I spent an hour or so painting an Adirondack chair and an hour or so mowing the lawn. The nice thing about projects like that is they give me time to either think or reminisce. It seemed easier for me to reminisce so I spent the time remembering a working vacation we took to Los Angeles last summer to the “Dream Center.” The more I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed to share it with once again.

What follows is a recollection of one of those days, a day spent on LA’s Skid Row.

Tuesday, August 10th was our first full day at the Dream Center.

There were some things that just became part of the daily routine for us. I was always the first one in our men’s dormitory to wake up, about 5:00 AM. After a quick shower, brief morning devotion, and some journaling I would walk back into the room to see how many of the guys I could wake up. I think it was a carry over from my military days. There wasn’t much I can say I’d admired about drill sergeants back in those days, but I learned to respect their power. Their 4:00 AM wake up calls were masterpieces of masochism. They always began with a baton rattling inside the barracks trash can followed by this familiar morning greeting – “Come on ladies, rise and shine, inspection in fifteen minutes. Their voices would reach a crescendo. “Lessgo.’ Lessgo.’ Lessgo.’” After trying to wake up our crew I found a greater appreciation for what those D.I.’s were able to do on a daily basis. They always got results. About all I would get was a few moans and the sound of teeth gnashing.
At about 6:30 Nancy would be ready for the day. We’d steal away for what became our only daily luxury, a couple of latte’s at Starbucks. We’d go down the hill, get our coffee, and walk back in time for breakfast. By the time we got back on site the Dream Center was alive with activity, particularly the sound of the “disciples” praying over the grounds. Breakfast was always a brief affair, a bit of cereal, fruit of some sort (most of it looked like peaches or plums), scrambled eggs (they reminded me of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham), and toast. The beauty of it was that we ate the same meals the “disciples” did. I think it was a way of saying that everyone from “disciple” to volunteer was on the same plane. There were no superstars here, only soldiers in a campaign to liberate souls.
After breakfast we had a bit of free time. For some it was a time to get acquainted with people in the group we had only known at a distance before the trip. Others used it as an opportunity to take care of a chore or two (especially laundry).
At 9:00 AM we met in what the staff called “The Mexican Theater.” We would be given our morning assignments which ranged from security (usually cleaning up around the outside of the buildings), marketing (thanking contributors), general clean-up, and so forth. While these tasks seemed a bit mundane, I really understood their value. No army fights well without doing them. In fact, if they don’t do them they become rag-tag mobs in time.
By noon we’re all done with the routine tasks for the day. For me it was cleaning graffiti from buses that had been “tagged” during the previous night.
After lunch, it was back to the “Mexican Theater” for afternoon assignments. We sat expectantly along with teams from British Columbia, Oregon, Indiana, Long Island, Colorado, and Texas. As each assignment was announced it was greeted with cheers. British Columbia got Metro Kidz along with Texas. Oregon and Long Island got Food Ministry. Indiana and Colorado were assigned to Hope for Homeless Youth. And we Kansans got “Skid Row.”
Before leaving we get a briefing from a Dream Center representative who was going to accompany us on our trip. It was a stark presentation. She described thousands living within a few city blocks, men, women, even children. She described the rampant drugs and crime and filth. She described the hopelessness and despair. She then went over what our role will be. It wouldn’t be all that dramatic. There would be no great exercises in preaching or theological knowledge. We just needed to be a human presence in the area letting people know that we loved them and God loves them too. Our role was to listen a lot, talk a little, pray with them if they would let us, and let them know there was a way out at the Dream Center if they would take it. We were finally told to leave anything that we believed had monetary value behind, partly because of the temptation it would offer those we would be trying to serve and partly because those we were going to serve were well past monetary help. The homeless of Los Angeles’s ‘Skid Row” needed more than money. They needed the miracle of human interaction!
From this point on I’m going to describe what I saw in present tense. I want you to walk into this pit with us. I want you to see what we saw.
We leave the Dream Center and arrive in the Skid Row about 30 minutes later. From there we break up into smaller teams. I’m assigned to the Wall Street section along with three others. My wife, Nancy, is assigned to a group of four who will be in the area that even churches generally don’t go. As we go our separate ways I offer her a smile and pray a silent prayer, “Lord, watch over her. She’s a gentle soul. Protect her, please.” I go, sensing that she’s probably offering the same prayer for me.
Our group finds Wall Street and we begin our walk. The most noticeable thing, early on, is the wretched smell. The air is full of the stench of human urine, feces, and marijuana. It’s a smell I’ll always be able to connect with this place, much like I can connect the smell of a farm market near Paris to delightful French food or the sweet odor of a chocolate store in Appenzel, Switzerland to the heavenly taste of Swiss chocolate or the smell of death that hovered over Saigon to a tragically flawed war I served in during the mid sixties. As we pass an abandoned construction site littered with trash we attempt to speak to people passing by. Some having shopping carts filled with the few earthly possessions they have. Some seem to be “less affluent” and carry only plastic garbage bags. Some carry their worldly goods in makeshift backpacks. The first person who will speak to us is an African-American man who appears to be in his mid forties. His face is narrow; his body is long and slender. His chin is covered by a gray goatee. His physical appearance reminds me of a boyhood hero, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. But he has nothing of Bill Russell’s fierceness in his countenance. It’s empty. We ask him how he’s doing. He smiles cryptically. “You don’t know?” We try to retrieve the conversation after its awkward start. “What’s your name?”“Ain’t got one.”“You’ve got to have a name. Everybody’s got a name.”“Already said. Ain’t got one.”“Where you from?“Here and there.”“What are you doin’ here?”“This and that.”“Help us man, we want to communicate with you. Do you believe in God?”A trace of a smile comes up on his face. “It’s all comin’ down. It’s all comin’ down.”“What does that mean?”“You figure it out.”“Can we pray with you about anything?”“Nah…..What for?”“You need help, man. God wants to help you.”“It’s all comin’ down. It’s all comin’ down.”
We sense that it’s time to leave and move down the street. We break into groups and canvass both sides. About the only sign of life we see in a half block is a man warning us to leave him alone. We turn around and go back in the general direction of the Union Rescue Mission. About two blocks on in our journey we spot what appears to be a Skid Row version of a market. There are men arranged in groups of two or three sitting against the buildings. Some wear suits. Others wear ragged jeans and baseball caps. We later learn that the attire is part of a Skid Row dress code of sorts, denoting higher from lower level “salesman.” I stop and stoop down and begin talking to two Hispanic men, one who appears to be a few years younger than me and another who is young, probably in his late teens or early twenties. Both men are dressed in dirty jeans. I offer a handshake to the older man first. “I’m Phil.”“Roberto,” the older man replies through a raspy voice. He holds my hand loosely for a few seconds and lets it go.“How long have you been livin’ here?“Me, I’ve been here for fifteen years, man. Carlos here has only been here a month.”Our conversation is interrupted on occasion as “shoppers” amble by and purchase a “cigarette” or two which Roberto has arranged in packs lined up between his outstretched legs. The purchases are made using hand signals. It begins with a buyer showing one or two fingers. Roberto would then respond with a nod and point to four packs of cigarettes, one pack of Salems, one of Marlboros, one of Camels, and a pack of Newport Lights. The buyer would respond by pointing to the desired “brand.” Roberto would then extend his left hand and receive the purchase price from the buyer, then close out the deal by reaching into one of the packs of “cigarettes” and pulling out the right quantity for the buyer. Each transaction took about ten seconds. “Why do you do this, man. You can do better,” I plead. His response sounds almost middle class American. “A man’s gotta’ make a livin’. Gotta’ get by somehow.”“There’s a better way,” I plead again.He looks at me and chuckles a bit. “Right.”“You did something before you got here, didn’t you?”“I was in the Army. Ten years, man.”I’ve found our first common ground. “I was in the Air Force. Eight years.”A customer or two interrupts our conversation. When the business is complete he looks at Carlos, his young protégé’ and asks me what I can do for him. “He’s young, man. He don’t belong here. My sin got me here, but this boy ain’t done nothin’ to deserve being here. What can you do for him?” “Tell him to take the bus that comes by each night from the Dream Center. It stops near the Mission. They’ll help him. But what about you? Why don’t you come too?” “Maybe,” he responds. “But I got two strikes against me. One more and it’s life. I’m gonna’ make that third strike a good one. I’ll get me a gun and kill somebody.” “Man, don’t,” I beg. “There’s better stuff in you than that.” His laughter in response to my plea tells me the conversation is over. I get up to leave and he asks one more question. “They’ll really pick Carlos up?” “They will,” I say with as much confidence as I can muster. “They will. I’ll be prayin’ for you, Roberto, and Carlos too. There’s a way out.”
As I walk away I see the rest of my group and join them. We spend a few minutes near the mission and then head back to our vans for our return to the Dream Center. What seemed like a few minutes has actually taken two hours. As we walk we notice a couple of “porta’ potties” across the street from us. One is hanging garishly to one side, like a Skid Row version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They’re often used as private places to shoot up drugs or engage in oral sex. As we pass it’s hard for me to imagine that something like sex of any kind would even be appealing in all the stench and filth of this Wall Street afternoon. The leader of my group, Mike Stubbs, who is also the pastor of the church I attend in Kansas, sees the obscene irony in it all. “It’s awful to see things that should be so beautiful in life brought down to this level. Who but the devil himself would think of something like this?” I agree silently. No response is really necessary. The scene speaks for itself.
About a block from our vehicles I look up at the street sign one last time. “Wall Street,” it proclaims. One last irony for the day strikes me. Two streets. Same names. Different cities. Both streets are filled with daily transactions. Both have GDP’s of one sort or another that can be calculated. One deals in human tragedy, the cold hard reality that’s played out every day in Los Angeles. One deals in what “Tinsel town” calls “the stuff that dreams are made of.” One deals in drugs and violence and human misery. The other one deals with IPO’s and hostile takeovers and oil futures. On one street human flesh is bought and sold and descends into bondage. On the other nations are bought and sold under the banner of “globalization.” One deals in daily the daily “facts of life” that have somehow convinced its inhabitants there is no way out. The other deals something more illusory, but every bit as powerful. It’s as real as the dispassionate cruelty of the market and as illusory as Fidel Castro’s beard.
As we take our places in the vans for the ride home I have one last thought. “It’s all twisted, Lord. It’s all twisted.”
When we get back to the Dream Center I spend the next couple of hours quietly trying to make sense of what I’ve seen. I wish I could say I have faith great enough to make sense of it, but I don’t. It doesn’t add up.
It’s only on the plane ride home to Kansas that I build up the courage to ask the questions that reveal my lack of faith. “Lord, why or how did grace find me? “Why hasn’t it found Roberto or Carlos? Will it ever find them? Did Carlos get on the bus that night? What about Roberto, Lord? He’s made in Your image as much as I am. I know You love them more than I could ever imagine, Lord. Why does this have to be? It’s going to take any army to bring healing there. How do we get enough people to respond? There are too few right now. There are too few.”
About 110 miles from Kansas City we pass by a series of thunderstorms raging to our north. As watch the lightning flashes in the distance I hope that we don’t have to pass through these storms before we make it home. I hope, but I’m not sure. I wonder if this is the type of hope Tolkien described in his writing as “hope without guarantees.” “Is that the message of Wall Street?” I wonder. “Go into the storm and bring as many of the perishing home as you can. Don’t wait until a favorable response is assured. Just go!”
As the plane makes its descent into Kansas City I sense that in some feeble way my task is to give what I’ve seen a voice. I doesn’t seem to be a ministry at all, or if it is one it’s a ministry of fumbling around in the dark. Will anyone listen? Does anyone care? Yet I know what I’ve seen must be given voice. Edward R. Murrow, America’s greatest journalist visited the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald in April of 1945. He closed his recollections of what he saw with these words – “I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words. If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I'm not in the least sorry....”
I’ve tried my best to describe what I saw that Tuesday on Skid row. Like Murrow, I pray you’ll believe what I’ve said. If what I’ve said offends you, I, like Murrow, am “not in the least sorry.”


Anonymous said...

Tolkien described in his writing as “hope without guarantees.”

would that everything could be hope without guarantee. But some people can't get the concept for understand that it is a good plan for living a life. ultimately in the end more satisfying than always looking for the safety net.

I am so glad I found this blog. I am going to look forward to hearing more of your thoughts. do you mind if I link you?


Nakia said...

I'm going with a team from my church to the Dream Center in August. I just happened to stumble on this message while searching for information. I'm really glad I did.

I don't think it will prepare me for what's there - but I have a better idea of what to pray for. And a stronger desire to be a part of something that God is such a part of.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Angela said...

Hi. I am a part of the team that Christan (above) has mentioned. Your blog is very helpful. Excellent writing. It is definatly being added to those that I read...