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Midnight on Skid Row

Last night I took a midnight trip to Skid Row with my friend Jorge and a few people I had never met before. I had been to Skid Row once before with some other friends, a couple years ago, but that was during the day.

For those that aren’t familiar with Skid Row, allow me to explain, from my perspective. First, here is a (slightly modified) quote from Wikipedia: “The area contains one of the largest stable populations of homeless persons in the United States. Informal population estimates range from 7,000 to 8,000. People passing through this area immediately see cardboard boxes and camping tents lining the sidewalks.” People find themselves living on Skid Row for a number of reasons, but the reasons are almost always drug-related. I was told during my first visit not to touch the walls or ground lest I catch an excrement-related disease. Needless to say, I carried hand-sanitizer with me and used it several times. While on that first trip, I witnessed one man going from woman to woman propositioning them for free and unprotected sex. He had two takers in a one-hour time span. At least they had the decency to do it in the privacy of the bathroom ONE of the two times. The other time was in plain view of everyone. Everyone and everything seemed to reek of poop and pot. The point I am trying to make is that most of these people have no respect for themselves. They have forgotten how to love themselves and how to be loved by others. Mostly, they just exist and live from one fix to the next.

Other than what is implied by what I have just stated I really did not know what to expect last night. I mean, it was late at night and raining. Would anyone be interested in talking with us? Would they want the bottled water, bagels, or donuts we brought with us to give out? Would anyone be coherent? Even if we did talk with someone and have a meaningful conversation, would it really make any lasting impact?

Right off the bat last night I did see some stuff that I did expect: tents, trash bags, thick blankets, tarps, and other miscellaneous water-resistant coverings. It looked a lot like how I imagine Haiti to look right now, bodies everywhere, except these were all alive. The night started slowly and I found myself mostly praying and taking in the sights during the first hour. I thought to myself, “Hey, if this is all that tonight holds for me, then it will have been worth it.” Not because it was a sightseeing tour worth remembering, but because God was speaking to me through that entire hour. My heart ached because His heart ached. I wanted to help because He wanted to help.

We traveled down the road a bit and stopped in front of the Midnight Mission, one of several organized shelters in that area. We met several people there and ran out of food and drink to hand out much faster than I anticipated. One guy wanted to share his photo album. Several wanted cigarettes. One woman could speak fluid and meaningful sentences, but couldn’t string them together to make a unified thought. She talked to imaginary people, asked me if I was black, and marveled at my white hand as though it was made of gold or something. One man was very argumentative and insisted both that Jesus didn’t exist AND that Jesus was black. More than one person acknowledged a God-like higher power but no one could honestly call that higher-power their Lord. They all wanted to live their own, self-destructive lives… except for one man…

We met “Lenny” outside the Midnight Mission. He was awake, clean, sober, and totally coherent. Lenny was abused sexually as a child and he blames that for his broken adulthood which includes bitterness, homelessness, and sexual confusion. He sometimes reads the Bible, attends church, prays, etc. On the whole, though, he dislikes the church and considers most/all Christians to be hypocrites. When he asked us who we represented (i.e. why were we on Skid Row at midnight), he expected the name of a church or organization. Our group of six was from all over – in fact I think one of us wasn’t from a church at all but from Alcoholics Anonymous – so we gave what I thought was the most appropriate and honest answer: Jesus. Lenny literally stumbled back a bit in reaction to this. He went on to tell us that, in his experience, all other churches and organizations that help the poor and homeless are doing so to bring glory to themselves. I know that’s not always the case, but it does happen a lot. So, I agreed with him by sharing about a church sign I had seen that morning that had the name of the church AND the name of the pastor on it. The more we all talked, the more intrigued he became. He told us his thoughts on the anti-Christ and other similar ideas. I think he did this mostly to see how we would react, but, frankly, I felt there was a lot of truth to his words and so I agreed with him. He wasn’t expecting that either. One guy on our team was a Kung Fu student and Lenny was very interested in that. Lenny gave some superficial reason for his interest, but his face told another story. So, I called him on it. I said, in so many words, “You say such and such, but I think in your head you are picturing yourself in a brawl defeating every opponent with ease.” He had to smile and laugh because that, apparently, was exactly what he was thinking! He continually marveled at our passion and compassion. We spoke truth but we did it lovingly, without judgment.

During most of the conversation with Lenny, there were at least three of us. During the final 10 minutes, though, it was just Lenny and I. During that time, I confessed to him that I honestly used to hate downtown Los Angeles and everything about it. I also confessed that I used to take sides in the gay vs. straight, republican vs. democrat, and other debates and so, sadly, I could relate to the many “Christians” with whom he had had negative experiences. Here are Lenny’s final words to me, as best as I can remember them:

“Wow, I am really glad I ran into you guys tonight. I had already been thinking about things I should be doing differently in my life, but I wasn’t getting the help or direction I was looking for. You have really opened my eyes to a lot of stuff. God has spoken to me through you. Things are going to be better in my life because I am going to make some changes. God bless you guys. Have a great night.”

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