• Fourth of July in Skid Row

    I found, at least for myself, one of the best places to spend a fourth of July Church service at – an African-American Church located in the middle of the hopeless and Notorious Skid Row of Los Angeles. Emily and I went to Central City Community Church of the Nazarene (CCCN) this Sunday and experienced a side of church (and patriotism) that was good for the soul and challenged a white-man’s pride.

    I spent this past week with my Urban Mission Models class meeting at CCCN and was intrigued by their “grassroots” approach to the hopelessness within Skid Row. I decided to call it hopelessness as opposed to poverty or homelessness because that is exactly what it is; Skid Row is comprised of Human Souls that have lost all hope. This Church seeks to have small groups of people that it ministers to; attempting to build transforming relationships with each person they come across. This leads them to shutting their doors on some people, but it also means that they are able to be more deeply involved with those they are ministering among. Their style of ministry got my attention and so my wife and I went to visit.

    We found this church with its doors wide open, people flowing in and out of the doors, some sitting outside against the walls, showing that the location of this church is very important to their ministry. The predominately black church, was filled with many people, some of other colors, some wearing dress clothes, suits, some wearing jeans and head bands; it was truly a band of misfits which reminded me of Gideon’s army.

    There were two significant things I walked away with yesterday: the first was that it is important to hear counter-narratives of our country and Christian faith and the second is that building community must be an intentional act within the church for any community to take place.

    First the pastor, Jeff Thomas, gave a powerful message on “Dependent Independence,” the main point of his message revolved around the theme that America within the Declaration of Independence wanted freedom from its oppressor, England, while at the same time oppressed those that maintain the economy of the country – those enslaved by those writing against oppression. This was much more my kind of Fourth of July service, no USA worship, no uncritical talk of the sheer amazingness of America; rather it was great to hear another side to the “the truth.” I was glad to hear, “the other side of the story.” The story not often talked about in those ways, especially not most white churches today.

    I can’t help but think of the deaths of the Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans when it comes to America’s Independence, but this is not a popular view-point, and many people push it off as – can’t we move past that yet? I thought about this also, but then I realized something, the African American churches continue to talk about this because the white churches have not collectively owned up to this or talked about it. When one group (or person) tries to persuade the mass population that group or person, often must tug hard the other direction in hopes of raising awareness, this is one reason why I think the black church continues to rehash these issues.

    Secondly, history must be retold in hopes of preventing repeats and learning from past failures. Unfortunately America is in the business of oppression, our economy is fueled by sweatshop labors in and outside this country, it is powered by service oriented governmental jobs that create needs in order to create jobs (one example of this is the compartmentalization of much of the educational system – there are many more specialists in the field than every before yet the quality of education continues to drop), and it is powered by resources that we must take from other countries. Bush’s war on terrorism, motivated for a control over the middle east’s oil resources is yet another form of America oppressing others. I realize that some will not agree with this view, some will argue for humanitarian reasons that Hussein had to be removed – I don’t doubt that there was awful cruelties taking place in that country, but what we have done over the last year with our bombs, and warfare machines has created much more destruction and brought the end to many more lives than what Hussein was doing. If we were motivated to rescue the people from his tyranny, why was the war sold as a quest to end terrorism, and why has it turned out to be all about gaining control of Iraq’s oil resources?

    These questions need to be asked, leaders need to be questioned, and I think the fourth of July is a perfect time to talk about “what is freedom?” and “how are we freeing or oppressing others? In our country and in the world?” The white evangelical church has for the most part turned a blind eye to the injustices in this country and world, they are not listening to the voices of the oppressed. The cries of the poor, urban and black churches continue to seep forth from the walls of injustice, calling those in power, those educated, those who have turned a blind eye to look up and notice – that our country is not yet “land of the free,” it calls forth hoping to find a prophetic voice from which it can speak.

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  • posting life

    I am learning how to be more visible in my thinking, I want to be apart
    of greater communities, thinking and storytelling.

  • class journal #3

    Class Journal #3
    June 30, 2004

    Three topics arose today as we visited Skid Row, the interrelationships between Rich and poor, how to deal with the overwhelming problems of the city, and also what missions means to today’s evangelicals.  First we spent time discussing the appointment with a wealthy CEO that Jude did with other class at other times, and how it is important to meet with people like that because they are doing things for the poor, and it is important for us to be stay connected to the because we can become very separate, often times anti-rich, even to the point of leaving the rich feeling unwelcome.  Bigotry toward the rich and those who live in wealthy areas can be feelings that arise within the poor and those who serve them, but if this happens then the cycle of bitterness and oppression is not broken and people are not freed from those sins.  If the rich don’t feel welcome in the poorer, urban churches then there is yet another segregation taking place.  What a holistic-relational Christian community seeks to do is not only bring together multi-ethnic, multi-generational but also multi-economic peoples to the community.  Problems do arise however because many rich don’t want the poor meeting in their nice suburban churches on Sunday, and many rich don’t feel welcomed in poorer churches because they are often times objectified for their money.

    What is most important is that we continue to try and bring people together because the there are many things to be learned from each subset of culture.  One person stated that, “If we go to the rich we will lose the poor, but if we go to the poor we will also gain the rich.” This is because there are lessons to learn within those who are poor that are deeply rooted within the Biblical message and cries of the Spirit.  These are some observations that those who are poor make that those who have money can learn from:  People with money often get too caught up with their own image, and don’t pay attention to anyone else; they are often times empty, searching for something they can’t find; they are lonely; we are all the same deep down inside.

    Christa spoke to us about prostitution in Thailand and what her and her husband are doing to help offer positive alternatives for the lady’s there. Two things that struck me most here were the possibilities of creating jobs for these girls in ways that not only help the women but one that is also positive for the community.

    Christa’s talk struck a chord with in me concerning foreign missions though.  Looking through this very present experience of being in Skid Row and feeling the overwhelming needs of those hurting around me, I felt as though helping those in Thailand is a far off dream.  I understand the role of foreign missions, but wonder how one can look through the problems of our own cities and into the problems of foreign cities.  This is not meant to critic Christa and her husband’s call but rather to ask how can I, as one who feels called to minister to those in my immediate community help those outside of it?  What is my role in helping those hurting and objectified Thai women?  I want them to be free from sexual oppression, I want to see them liberated from Buddhism, but is there a place for me to truly support foreign missions when I feel so strongly about rescuing those so close to home?  One response the Spirit gave was, “by educating those around me of the injustices in the world.”  The Spirit showed me that though I am may be unable to support or serve those ladies in Thailand in any ongoing way, I may be able to educate and empower others do to so, even those who are poor and oppressed here in the States.  It is possible by informing those around me of such injustices that some will find a way out of their own holes in the form of serving others who are in similar or worse situations.

    Finally our visit to Mosaic felt left me with critical responses.  In many ways I saw what Mosaic was saying as putting a new hat on an old form.  Mosaic is a homogenous group of people seeking to grow (by spreading the Gospel) by reaching those who are like them, practically speaking, the majority are around the age of 24, middle-class, and single.  It is a church still built on the foundation of evangelical tenants, where preaching is at the center of what is done, and worship is regularly understood to come through forms of music and art.  They are basically a typical American protestant church that has hyped itself up enough to appeal to the young crowd, which is not in and of itself bad, but it is lacking in multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and multi-economic peoples.  Further as a Quaker Christian, I find a church community that is built around a pastor/speaker, the Bible (or word) as foundation, and worship limited to acts of music and other art forms, to be lacking in the talk of the Light of Christ, the Priesthood of all believers and contemplative and sacramental lifestyle.  I find these latter things to be at the heart of not only true “postmodern” movements but also at the heart of church that are socially relevant and active, driven by the spirit of God in a given community.

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  • Class Journal #1 Fuller at Skid Row

    June 28 2004
    Urban Mission Models Class Journal #1

    I was struck the very beginning of the class by one small statement read aloud and set the momentum for the whole day.  This phrase was read from what I judged to be a clichéd filled poem called, an Urban Psalm 23.  “They never look in my eyes…” were the words spoken with ease and brevity, but struck me with the force of awakening clarity, as though be splashed with a bucket of cold water.  These words uttered in prose, spoken through the mouths of many underprivileged, homeless and vagabonds grabbed me because it was not a week ago that I came to the realization, “If I don’t look at them or make eye contact, they don’t beg for money from me.”  Though I consider myself an advocate for the poor, I concluded that dropping a few coins into a battered Styrofoam cup would make little to no difference for my recipient of good works.

    I have often said with the frustrations of irritation as well hopelessness, “Don’t they realize that if I gave money to every single person who asked of me I would be sitting right alongside them?”  My less then Christ-like attitude has caused me to be paralyzed and unable to help those who are in need.  The small voice of the homeless women I see on my way to my favorite coffee shop, quietly mumbles, “They never look in my eyes…”  In the process of seeking to be a “wise steward” of my money I have neglected more base needs of humanity.  Though I may not be able to always offer money to those who seek it, I can offer them the freedom and joy of being treated as a human in acknowledging their presence, a smile, an intentional look into their eyes, or a even a pleasant word or two.  This morning devotion broke way in my heart and declared that I oppress other when I deny them the joy of being treated as a fully human and divinely-created being.

    This morning devotion of treating people as people set the stage for the day’s themes such as Andy Bale’s importance of stories and advocacy, Jill Shook’s Mobilizing, Organizing, and Theology of Location and Rudy’s redistribution, relocation, and reconciliation.  Each place we were at brought up somewhat different, somewhat interrelated themes but all revolved coherently around a desire to give poor people the opportunity to become fully human, as exemplified in Christ. 

    The most impressive part about our time with Andy Bale was how much he was apart of the lives of those he serves.  He told us of how recently he got in a lot of trouble with the Pasadena councilman because he and others from the church were feeding and giving drinks to the day laborers and another time where an angry neighbor pulled a gun on some day laborers and threatened to kill them for being by his house.  Andy had to step up and call the chief police commissioner to request that the officer who handled the case actually follow the law and arrest the wealthy man who pulled the hand gun on the Mexicans.  Finally the Officer returned and arrested the man, but it took the advocacy of a white pastor of a very rich church to make sure that the law was followed. 

    What stood out most about the day labor center was actually meeting the people, learning names and trying to talk with them across language barriers.  I really enjoyed the little time I had with learning that even illegal immigrants are truly humans, with needs, feelings and fears just like the rest of us.  By being there, their problems seemed much more relevant to me than before, all of a sudden I found myself really caring about day labor and immigration laws.  The migrant workers become human to me in that small building, as we ate tamales together talking about the life we share.

    Finally Rudy, the director at Harambee, impressed me the most.  I was so impressed with him because unlike Andy and Jill at the other two centers, Rudy was not doing ministry for those around him, he was doing it with them.  Rudy is so ingrained in the neighborhood where he has lived and practiced ministry for 17 years that the problems of the Harambee center and the people of the neighborhood were truly his own.  Like he said, it is not as if he knew the community, he is the community.  In becoming a part of the people he served he had a very clear testimony to his validating the humanity of those whose humanity is in question. Everything that happed today supported this ongoing theme, those who follow Christ seek to allow their fellow human being the opportunity to experience a fuller/truer humanity.

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  • Class Journal #2 Fuller Visit’s Skid Row

    June 29, 2004
    Class Journal #2

    We arrived in Skid Row, LA’s Homeless “Containment” district this morning at about 9:00 am to find at least 10 people sleeping on the sidewalk.  One person had a tent fixed to the fence and created somewhat of a small shelter about 7 feet long and 3 inches wide, with crates underneath the tent keeping certain parts of the tents from touching the ground.  I looked at those who were awake and curiously looking at us, the 13 students from upper-class Pasadena, clean, toting backpacks and smiling down in one of the saddest parts of LA; I smiled, said hello and intentionally looked at those who were attentive, many smiled and said good morning, no of the ask for money or approached us in any threatening ways, it was human to human interaction.  People really live this way, as many as 10,000 a night in Skid row sleep on the streets and/or are homeless.  There are only 20,000 residents in this district, and with 50% on the streets every night skid row earns some scary reputations all across the country.  I learned within the first 15 minuets of being there that people, real live people, live in Skid Row, Skid Row is only terrible because these people it has become a dumping ground for LA, in order to hide its homelessness.  With laws that actually make homeless illegal, police pick up homeless people from around to “financial district” and drop the off in the containment area.  A place where no one wants to be, but unfortunately for those who don’t want to be there and have little resources, they have little power in getting out.

    The most impactful time we experienced today came from being with Tim and Grady at the Central City Community Church of the Nazarene.  We learned about some of the poor politics of Downtown Los Angeles and the many struggles with finding housing for the homeless in the area.  Many slum lords own hotels in the area and allow the poor of Skid Row to live for cheaper rent, in terrible conditions, many rooms do not have their own bathrooms and are often located next to prostitutes and drug dealers.  One of the hardest things to deal with is finding sufficient housing for families.  The hotels in the area that even allow families to stay in their facilities charge $800-1200 a month which most families in middle class can barely afford let alone those who are homeless and have no jobs.  Many of the landlords play a game with the residents called “the 28 day shuffle”  that is they uproot the poor from their places of residence every 28 days and move them to different rooms or kick them out in order to keep them from sustaining any kind of “renters rights” that the city allows occupants after 30 days stay in any apartment complex.  I was glad to hear and learn from the stories that Tim and Grady told us, because it opened my eyes to the multi-layered problems that homeless people face within the system.  Tim stated succinctly that, “We can judge a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable.”

    I felt that out of the three places we went today, CCCN, Exposition Park Nazarene and Faith in Christ Ministries that CCCN was the most important for me to see because they challenged me most directly with the importance of relating to those in the city as real people, as individuals with stories, hurts, pains, hopes and dreams.  They interact with those of Skid Row on a one-to-one basis, they don’t have lines of people waiting for free giveaways each morning, in fact they don’t have lines at all.  They answer the problem of “there are so many people that need help and so few laborers to do it by doing just the opposite that one may expect.  Instead of doing like many churches and rescues missions, they do not line people up like cattle and throw food and clothing their way, rather they seek to relate to people one at a time.  They desire to really learn and know those who they are serving.  One way to say it may be, that they are not ministering to but they are ministering with those around them.  In other words, they see themselves as part of on going story in skid row, they see themselves as learning and being impacted by those who live their just as much as they seek to help them.  This is why Grady said that there are only 40-50 kids in their program at a time, because that is all they can handle, that is the maximum amount of kids that they can get to really and truly know.

    It seems that his type of city ministry, the relation type, works best, because out of all the programs and ministries we have experienced thus far CCCN is the one that has the most amount of people remaining apart of the ministry in leadership roles, they have many kids in their high school internship programs, their worship band is filled with residence of Skid Row and there are many other examples of them empowering those they are serving to be apart of helping others, and ultimately fulfilling God’s call in their own lives.  This empowering has also lead to many success stories of those who have been able to get back on their feet and become integrated back into mainstream society.

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