My Friday night in Downtown Los Angeles was not the average experience of a 21-year-old. My evening did not involve fancy restaurants, dance music, or even laughter. Instead, it consisted of reaching out to those who the world pushes away. I walked with my fellow Azusa Pacific classmates and staff from the Dream Center L.A. through Skid Row, bringing light to the darkened streets.
This semester, I am enrolled in Ministry to the City. My professor, Gregg Moder, D.Min., in the Department of Practical Theology, allowed us to do more than just learn from a textbook. Seven APU students boarded the bus with 40 volunteers from the Dream Center, a Christian organization that works to fill the needs of the marginalized in Los Angeles.
Skid Row Outreach forms a primary area of the Dream Center’s ministry. Skid Row is home to one of the largest populations of homeless people in the United States. According to the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, anywhere from 2,000–5,000 people reside in this 54–block area. Many sleep on the street, in a tent or cardboard box, or out in the open. Others live in inadequate housing that violates most health codes and sanitary standards. Each Friday night, the Dream Center’s volunteers spend time there passing out water and food, and offering prayer to those who want it. The ministry also offers free shuttle service to church on Thursdays and Sundays.
As we headed to Skid Row, I honestly did not know what to expect. I have learned that there is a huge difference between learning about something and actually experiencing it. Skid Row was no exception. I was less uncomfortable than I anticipated. As I walked through Skid Row, I saw people. People who had reached the end of the line, who were stuck in poverty and addiction. People whom Christ died to save. As Dr. Moder said, “If Jesus was on the earth today, He would spend time in Skid Row.”
As I walked along the streets, I became overwhelmed–not because I felt scared or unsafe, but because my heart broke at the overall sense of hopelessness that pervades the area. As a privileged APU student, I am used to having answers. On Skid Row the stream of answers stop, overrun by an endless stream of questions. Why are God’s children stuck on the street? How did someone get to the place where the drugs overtook that person’s life? How can I help a heroine addict?
My experience on those blocks reminded me that there are no easy answers to these questions. Helping the least of these, a passion I hope to foster through my life, does not happen overnight. It happens through consistency. You must show up and share God’s love, conveying to people that they have worth and dignity regardless of their life circumstances. Simply making eye contact or touching someone’s shoulder can communicate love in great ways. As a student who hopes to earn my Master of Social Work, Skid Row helped me connect with a disenfranchised population and see them through the eyes of Christ. Restoration does not happen over night. Caring alongside those in desperate situations takes time, resources, and a God that is bigger than any situation.
In the end, I am so grateful for Azusa Pacific University and a community that is not content to stay in the classroom. My university goes out into the neighborhoods to serve, to understand the dynamics of poverty and pain in the world, and to make a difference.