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Watts (Part 2)

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This is part 2 of a two-part blog. If you never read part 1 before or if it has been a while, you should consider reading part 1 before reading this.
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Before I continue, let me just say to myself on behalf of myself and all other people who have the slightest interest in my blogs, “Shame, shame, shame on you, Jeremiah! You wrote part 1 over a year ago! What if you got shot and died and you never told us about it?!”

So, when I wrapped up part 1 of this story, I was heading out the gate of a three-story church complex and out into the neighborhood of Watts to hand out slices of pizza. My pulse was racing, my palms were sweaty, and my stomach was in knots. As I stepped through the open gate, I walked cautiously behind the two ladies who were part of my team. Before the gate had even opened, I had noticed some people gathered across the street from the church. The way they appeared perfectly matched my preconceived ideas about what to expect. It was a group of black teenage boys and girls gathered around a luxury car. The car’s stereo blared gansta rap and several of the males were wearing gold chains and other bling bling. All that was missing were the drugs and guns. One or two of the young ladies from the group accepted some pizza slices but the others politely turned us down.

Next we headed into one of the numerous areas referred to as “the projects”. Tall rod-iron fences surrounded this area. The buildings all had rod-iron bars on the windows and every door was made of sturdy metal. The building walls were all made of concrete and were, no doubt, designed to withstand bullets. As we walked among these ominous buildings, children began to appear seemingly out of nowhere. They approached us timidly at first, but once the first child ate the first bite of the pizza, the rest of the pizza quickly vanished. Most of the children were black, but a couple of them were Hispanic. One of the Hispanic girls decided to thank the two girls from my team by giving them hugs. I was still lagging behind my counterparts and so I witnessed all of this from a few feet away. I was too nervous and scared to fully encounter anyone in this foreign place. It was almost as though I was outside of my body controlling it via a remote. I could see and hear everything but I am not sure if I had said anything from the moment I had left the church until this moment. It was all so surreal. After the Hispanic girl hugged my teammates, she looked up at me and said, “Now I will give you a hug too.” It was at the moment that she said that that I decided to quickly climb back into my body. I knew that when she did hug me I would have to cease being an observer and actually interact with my surroundings! And so she did as she said she would. She hugged me. Then something happened inside of me. The best way I can think to describe it is that I melted. Virtually all of my fears, preconceptions, doubts, and prejudgments just drained out of me! On the outside, nothing unusual happened. On the inside, a great wave of peace flooded over me downing out all of that other stuff. I did all that I could to keep tears from filling my eyes.

After the hug, I don’t recall many specific details. I stopped being an observer at that point; I stopped taking mental notes and began engaging the people I encountered.

On three separate days we facilitated a Vacation Bible School (VBS) of sorts for the kids of the neighborhood. Each day consisted of lesson time and snack time for the entire group of roughly 75 kids plus a craft time and game time where the kids were broken into two groups for improved manageability. The game times proved to be even more frustrating and exhausting than any of us had expected. The competitiveness led to yelling and eventually hitting. Some kids stole the supplies while others threw them at each other. It was chaos! Mysteriously, while these same kids were doing crafts, you might have thought that you were witnessing a scene from a distinguished private school. With a few exceptions, the kids were well behaved and well mannered. They said “please” and “thank you” and even helped each other with their crafts!

It took me some time to figure it out, but the young people of Watts, teenagers included, desperately want love and even the discipline that comes with true love (as opposed to the romantic love portrayed in movies and novels). On the surface, these kids are uncontrolled hoodlums. Underneath, they are much like you and I. They want love and, furthermore, they want someone, anyone, to teach them right from wrong. They long for boundaries. I have seen the most troublesome kids go from causing physical harm to being one of my most helpful assistants.

One last thing before I wrap up my story. Thus far, I haven’t mentioned God even once despite the fact that He is the reason that this story even came to pass. It’s easy to forget at times that God has anything to do with our reality. Sometimes, it’s easy to live as though us humans are the highest beings in the universe and as though we must solve all of our problems on our own. On the second or third day of VBS, one of the ladies on our team, one of the main performers during that day’s lesson, lost her purse about an hour before the bulk of the kids were set to arrive at the church. At first, she patiently looked for it, but as more and more kids arrived, she grew more and more nervous, as did the rest of our team. At one point, the few kids that were already present got wind of her distress and they began mocking her and implying that one of them may have stolen and/or hid it from her. Her nervousness swelled into anxiety and fear. Several other team members, including myself, joined the hunt for the missing purse. The problem with this is that the remaining members of our team were not adequate to maintain peace and calm as the number of children continued to increase. Sensing the chaos increasing, I stopped and observed the situation. Team members were running around handling this or that, some kids were fighting or yelling, other kids were literally climbing on the walls, and still others were getting into and misusing the “hidden” art supplies. It was madness! I had a choice to make: I could either let my emotions and the chaos get the best of me or I could put my trust in someone much bigger than the situation. I closed my eyes and prayed right where I as standing. Actually, I prayed a few times, opening and closing my eyes as I did. As I did this, I noticed two things. I was not the only one praying. Other members of the team had stopped what they were doing and had also began praying. The other thing that I noticed was a miracle! The fighting kids dropped their fists and made amends. The yelling kids lowered their voices. The kids on the walls came down. The kids with the art supplies put them back where they belonged. Before my eyes, the kids stopped their mischief and began sitting down to prepare for the lesson time! In time, the purse was found and the message of the lesson was delivered. God provided. He just needed us to acknowledge Him and ask for His help first.

Before this trip that I originally didn’t want to go on, the thought of even driving through Watts terrified me. Now I go once a month and I even bring other people with me. I have witnessed a handful of baptisms, built several worthwhile relationships, and have even delivered a well-received sermon! I love these people and can’t imagine how miserable my life might be if I hadn’t obeyed my God when He first called me to this miraculous place.

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