Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black Friday

I decided to join the Friday night team this week, especially since we hadn't stayed out as late on Thanksgiving, getting home around midnight instead of 3am. The streets were filled with many more cars, people, and noise than they had been the previous night. I escaped the cold air as I met the team in the warmth of Del Taco. They sat catching up with each other as well as our friend 'Ravi' as he ate the meal they provided to him. The night had a slow start as Michelle was interviewing Nick for a journalism class assignment, and we waited for everyone to arrive and set out. A few people took off to begin their night of meeting people at all of the usual places, and Francisco and I decided to go to 7-11 for coffee and energy drinks in the meantime.

As we arrived, there was a bit of commotion, as a guy bolted inside as the words, "there he is!" followed behind him from another guy. Figuring it was the usual ruckus, we continued on inside to get our drinks. As I stood by the coffee machine, Will ducked behind it and the snack rack on the other side, hoping to escape whoever was chasing him. It appeared that he was talking to people at the door, or just outside of it, and kept saying, "call the cops...can you call the cops? This guy's chasing me...I don't want to go out there." From the tone of his voice, it didn't sound anxious or overly dangerous, but that he was frustrated, a little angry, and slightly worried. Glancing at him, I recognized the 20-some year old black man, his tear drop-tattooed face and sleeves of tattoos. I had talked to him several times before, but in his state of worry, he didn't acknowledge me and it wasn't really the time to bring up recognition. But after saying he wanted someone to call the cops multiple times, I stepped aside from the coffee and asked if he wanted me to call the cops. He responded that we could, but what he really needed was a ride, that he needed to get away from the threat outside. After a few minutes of talking to him and debating in my mind what to do - since we didn't know the full story and weren't sure if there would be any threat to us if we involved ourselves in the situation - we ended up calling Jean-Eric to come pick him up with us. Because I knew him, and based on the sound of situation, it seemed that he was in more danger than anyone else involved, and if we could help him without being confronted by whoever was chasing him, we would be fine.

As we stood outside in the protection of the local security officers, Will told us bits and pieces of what had happened - jumped, bike stolen, couldn't run because of a hurt leg, framed and chased after...his anxiousness to just get out of the area because he didn't do anything and didn't want any trouble. We made sure that he didn't have any drugs or weapons on him before planning to give him a ride, and then the guys showed up in the 7-11 parking lot, going off again. One of them held his friend back as he yelled and tried to go after Will. The cops tried to get us all to leave until we explained that we were giving him a ride. I think it helped that a few of them were officers we had talked to last night and given Thanksgiving meals to.

Will needed to get to a train station to get home to Long Beach, but wouldn't be able to walk to one fast enough. As the cops got the guys to leave and head the other direction, we hid behind the wall of 7-11 as we waited for Jean-Eric to show up. He went on in his anger to tell more of the story, anxiously looking up and down the streets, saying he didn't know where they might show up and that he just wanted to leave without any trouble. That's when he also acknowledged that we'd met and knew each other and asked if I remembered him. He also asked about where we were from and if we were affiliated with a church, knowing what we were out there doing. When Jean-Eric showed up, we piled into the car and headed to the train station, Will continuing in his story of what happened, explaining why he was there, how he'd been homeless for a few months in Hollywood when we met him, now living in Long Beach but up here to visit friends. And from what he could tell the guys thought he was dealing drugs on their turf, even though he doesn't deal. He thanked us for the ride when we got to the train station and sent us off with a "God Bless you", and we headed back to Del Taco.

As we headed in, we ran into our friend "Cassandra" and a guy that he was with. He sat down with us, and we quickly entered into conversation about the latest gossip, as he always likes to share in his incredibly flamboyant and charismatic way. Turns out the previous night a man had been killed on one of the local bus lines, and a recent murder of a transsexual had also occurred. Apparently there's a truck that's begun being recognized with people who are out to get transgenders, or at least that's what we got from Cassandra's story, as he had had a recent encounter with the guys. The conversation quickly transitioned into religious topics as the guy he was with asked us if we were Christians. I don't think I've actually seen any boyfriends or dates of the transgenders that we talk to. It was slightly odd, and yet not all that strange at the same time, to sit with a gay couple, one looking and acting the part of the female. I guess at this point very little surprises me. But I always wonder about the people who date transgender prostitutes, and this guy was completely normal, and very engaging in our conversation. A Mexican male, dressed "like a gang banger" as he explained it, but let us know he'd never done the gang thing and didn't really understand it. He believed that Christianity was the only true religion, and knew that his sexual preference conflicted with the bible, and didn't feel right about following a religion or going to church while knowing he was acting against it. That topic led to a long, very interesting and productive conversation about the bible, God, homosexuality and sin in general, and forgiveness. Both Cassandra and Silent, as he goes by, both believe Christianity and know quite a bit about the bible, which made for an intelligent dialect. I would say maybe one of the best conversations I've had there, because 4 of us were talking to them, able to debate and discuss, but never in a confrontational, condemning, or angry way. It was completely calm with even exchange on both ends.

Silent expressed that he really enjoyed the conversation, finding these types rare, because people don't want to take the time to listen or talk about these things. And when Jean-Eric shared one of his struggles he'd dealt with since he was young, Cassandra expressed how appreciative he was that he was willing to share something like that and be real about it and asked the rest of us about our struggles, too. Clearly, it's important for us to be able to relate to people when we talk, not from a pedastal. And likewise, Cassandra told us some darker details from his childhood and some fears he'd recently had realized.

As the conversation rounded back to lighter topics, it struck me yet again how odd the situations we end up in probably appear to people. 4 young women and men - Mexican, Lebanese, Korean and American - sitting in a Del Taco in Hollywood, engaging in a deep conversation where the words "God" and "Bible" can clearly be overheard coming from a 35 year-old Mexican man and his transgender boyfriend. Laughter is interspersed through the conversation that anyone inside can hear, and then we continue talking with Silent as Cassandra stands behind me braiding my hair. From the outside it must be an odd scene...but it strikes me that even the people we don't talk to are seeing something different going on and probably notice what's happening. Hopefully there's a silent witness just from our presence and interaction with those that people on the street know well. In fact, some of the friends we've made out there have said that they saw us all the time, watched what we did and who we talked to before they ever talked to us. They knew who we were and what we were doing, even when they'd never talked to any of us, maybe had even avoided it. It's encouraging to me to think that maybe even when we're not talking to everyone there, that we're building trust with them just by being there every week and accepting 'their people', and that eventually that trust might lead to more relationships.

Friday, November 28, 2008


It's been several weeks since I've written anything, part of that due to the fact that I took a two week sabbath from ministry. And before that Antquan was taking a 2 week break as well, during which I filled in to facilitate our nights out there and work on planning Thanksgiving dinner, so I've been a little busy.

Every year Broken Hearts hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for our friends we meet on the street. We usually don't know who's going to show up or what exactly to expect. We start telling people about it a few weeks ahead of time, reminding them, and letting them know when and where we'll be to pick them up for dinner. The past two years Antquan had it at his house near Orange County, and the team would bring people down from Hollywood. This year we were blessed enough to be able to partner with the Hollywood Church and Hope Again, a transitional living shelter, to provide a Thanksgiving meal to those living in the shelter, to some friends from our awesome partner, the Hollywood Church, and to friends from Santa Monica Blvd.

It was a great turnout, as we had several men and women from Hope Again join us, though only a few of our friends from Thursday and Friday nights came. Because we host the dinner earlier in the evening, many of the people we know aren't out on the street yet to participate with us. Which is why after dinner, we pack up the leftovers into individual plates and hand them out to people who couldn't make it.

For the first 20 minutes or so, the 30-35 people in the room took turns sharing what we were thankful for. Everything from good jobs, friends and family, to a roof over a head, to thanksgiving for salvation, sobriety and healing. But pretty much everyone included their reason for all of that, our God who so graciously and faithfully provides all of those things, and who, for so many, has pulled them out of a life on the street and addictions to drugs and alchohol.

Dinner was a delicous array of traditional Thanksgiving foods, and we spent the next hour or so enjoying the company of our team, visitors, and getting to know new faces from Hope Again. One of the only faces I reconized from the street was AJ, a young kid who I'd talked to a few times and came out with our friend "Ravi". He told me he was tired, that living on the street was exhausting and that he hadn't slept much lately. That he and Ravi would be sleeping on the top of an apartment building, or in the stairwell that night. And asked what church I went to and expressed interest in attending the Hollywood Church. I hadn't talked to him too much in previous weeks, but I wouldn't have guessed when he came in that night that he was so interested in change, so tired, and ready for spiritual feeding.

After the meal, we made plates to hand out on the street and divided up to pass them out. In my car we took Nat, a sold-out-for-Christ woman we had just met, who lives in a camper a few blocks down. She was set on taking plates to some of her homeless friends who live near her, so we headed there first to make sure that they were provided with a warm meal for the night. Behind a tarp covering up their belongings, we found a man and a woman, covered in blankets covering them from the now chilly air, lying on a small mattress of some sort, tucked in for the night. We chatted with them for a few minutes, then took another plate to a man who was getting into his car for the night. That point in the evening causes me to think how many needs are out there that most of us probably miss so often; how deceiving appearances can be, especially when we either don't want to see the need, or don't want to assume a need in fear of offending someone. "Do you think that guy wants a plate?" Francisco asked Nat. My limited-view response suggested that from my perception, he seemed to just be a guy getting into his van to leave..on his way somewhere, perhaps home. Nat's reply: "no, he's staying here tonight. that's his van, that's where he stays." A brief exchange and we confirmed that the van was the man's home and that he usually sleeps there, and would probably want some food. Francisco took one of our last plates to the man while we waited in the car. He came back to tell us that the man expressed great thanks for the food, and that the look in his eye when he was offered food was one that made Francisco want to cry.

My abrupt and lazy judgement had allowed me to think that this was just a normal guy taking off for the night, not in need of anything. And if it were me, I would have missed giving a basic necessity for life and a moment of concern and caring for one of the most lonely, sad, and most grateful recipients we met last night....

After dropping off Nat at her camper, we headed down to Santa Monica blvd to meet the rest of the team and pass out the rest of the food. But the streets were practically vacant, some of our regular shops closed for the night, and very few people to accept any food. We spent a lot of the evening in the parking lot where we normally have bible study. Meals went to some security guards, police officers, a man we met in the liquor store while visiting a friend who works there, our old friend Miko who came by later and wanted to know what we were all grateful for, the donut shop owners, and a few others.

The streets were crawling with cops last night, people being pulled over, chased down, hand-cuffed, and watched scrutinously throughout the evening. We sat on the wall by the adult book store and security base for a while, talking to a man we'd given some food to, and then to a younger guy the team had recently met. We passed by a guy getting interrogated and cuffed as we made a bathroom trip, and then on the way back to that wall passed by some cops standing there. "Do you come out here often?" one of them asked me. I could tell that either a questioning of why we were there, or a warning, were about to ensue. "yep. We come out here every week," I replied, met by a look of surprise. "Well I'm just gonna let you know that you shouldn't come out here, there's a lot of robberies; this is a dangerous area." I let him know that we come each week to hang out with people and have a bible study...and implied that we're aware of the danger and have no plans to stop coming. Of course he looked at me like I was a naive idiot, and a "yeah, that's cute that you're trying to do something good, but give it up" expression. I think he said something along the lines of, "well, that's good that you're trying to help, but this is a dangerous area and I would advise that you don't keep coming out here." I let him know that I understood, that I appreciated his concern and would keep it in mind, but made no promises that we'd ever stop coming. And though safety is always a concern we need to keep in mind, I didn't tell him that in 4 years that team has never had any major saftey issues. A few threatening people, perhaps, but nothing beyond that.

It made me keep thinking though...surprisingly people don't ever seem to mind us being out there or have much of a problem with us. At least from the standpoint of us being obvious outsiders and encroaching on a turf that is far from our usual hang outs. From the standpoint of us being Christians and holding beliefs that conflict with their lifestyle, that's where we find more resistance and anger. As a cop, I'm sure that man sees all the bad, and gets endless attitude and anger expressed towards him. They're there to enforce the law, they infringe on the "freedom" that people have down there, they can be oppressive and they're the ones who send them to jail and give them trouble...often unfairly. But we've made friends with those same people...the people who are hassled by cops, who deal drugs, who pimp and steal and lie, and probably cause trouble for the law enforcement, are also some of the same ones who have our back, who come to our bible studies, who engage in conversations about God with us.

This year I'm incredibly grateful for that - for our ministry, for God's protection, for the relationships he's allowed us to build when it seems crazy to the outside world, for the way that he uses us to help people out there, and for the lives he slowly rebuilding and giving hope to.