The pit in my stomach increases as we drive through the darkened streets. Oh God, oh God, oh God echoes in my head as I hug my Bible closer to my heart. All I can do is cling hard to His Word as I watch the drama of the streets fly past my window. Piles of blankets show where people have already illegally bedded down for the night as huddles of others glance at us as we drive by. We pull to the side of the road and grab the bags of tacos. I send up a simple cry--Help me God--as I exit the van onto the cold street.
A man walks past and I attempt a brave smile. "What are you folks doing?" he asks. What are we doing? I wonder. A bunch of white, middle-class college kids in the worst part of LA at 10:00 on a Friday night? What are we doing?
Another in my group hands him a taco and he continues down the street. A huddle forms as we meet to distribute the tacos from Del Taco and the apples we smuggled out of dinner. "Jillian...come with us?" Miriam calls. I walk over to her, glad to have her by my side. Miriam is my inspiration for coming here. Her heart for the poor and love for the people of Skid Row just overflows when I talk to her, and I felt God prompting me to leave the safety of the Christian environment of Masters...to spend and be spent for another's soul. So here I was, scared to death.
We started down the street to catch up to Candace, Joe and Nate. Nate has already found Donald and hands him a taco. We talk to him about his Bible reading...he tells us about Psalm 29 and talks about his faith in the Lord...but I can smell the alcohol on his breath. He's visibly drunk. When questioned about it, he talks about the heartaches of living on the street and the pain he sees all around him. "Is that an excuse?" No, he agrees, but he still defends his addiction. Others seem to wonder why five white kids are surrounding this little black grandfather, so we turn to them and offer more tacos. Miriam and I talk to Ronnie; "What are your ideas about God?" she asks. He very bluntly replies that his god is narcotics. But he's been clean for awhile--he can tell us down to the month, the week, the day. Raised Jehovah's Witness, he is confused about theology. We discuss the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, and the only true Hope for overcoming addiction. Finally we leave him with hugs and a promise to pray that he will stay clean...along with an unspoken promise to pray for his soul.
Miriam and I join Nate, who is talking to two tall African American men while Joe and Candace continue to witness to Donald. Anthony works at the nearby highschool in gang prevention. "What do you do? How do you help the kids?" we ask. His answer can be boiled down to one word: Love. All they want is to be loved, and they look for it in all the wrong places, and they end up 30-40-50 years old on Skid Row. My heart aches for these children who have never known the love that I have, the love of a Christian family and of a wonderful God.
We walk down the block, turn the corner and huddle for prayer. As Nate brings Donald before the throne of grace, Donald himself rounds the corner. He asks to join the circle and slips in between Miriam and me. We put our arms around him while praying for another, and then pray again for Donald. As I listen, the smell of alcohol mingles with the scent of urine that pervades Skid Row. Inwardly, I cry out to God to open this man's eyes to his sin, to comfort him in this desolate place so that he won't turn to the beer for comfort. I cry for the pain that dwells in this place.
There are so many more people...the man who wouldn't even tell Candace and me his name, so hardened was he against God...the cocaine addict who would yell loudly and jump, landing with a bang that made me jump as well...the woman who was insane with rage, yelling swear words mingled with hallelujahs, screaming at an invisible person down the street while Miriam just held her and tried to comfort her. Again the tears came.
Then there are Phillip and Dynel. Dynel, fresh out of prison, stops us to ask if we are handing out church. "No, we're handing out tacos," we reply, "but we just ran out." But still we give him what we can: God's love. His friend Phillip joins him and we talk for countless minutes. As we stand on the side of the street, another group walks past. One man picks me out of the crowd and comments on my height. As he continues talking, I get more and more uncomfortable, praying frantically and looking around for help. Finally he leaves, with a promise to return. Shakily, I turn back to Candace. "You alright?" she asks. I nod and tell her to pray. The man never returns. Our group breaks into two as we continue to talk to Phillip and Dynel. Phillip seems truly interested. He offers us chairs (buckets and crates) and we sit beside the filthy street discussing God's glory with this homeless alcoholic. "You've made me think," he says. "Tonight I'll put the can down and think about what you've said." He wants to meet us next week...asks for a Bible...tells us to pray for him whenever we think of him. It wasn't a hard promise to make!
With our taco supply exhausted and the hours becoming morning, we leave...back to our heated and air-conditioned dorm rooms and our closets full of clothes and our all-you-can-eat meal plans and our futures full of hope. In the van, I talk to Hannah and Peter about our different experiences, about our struggles, about our futures that are so bright...how can we use them for Him? God has given us so much. Don't waste it!