Los Angeles Mission Trip

Posted on February 23, 2012

I want to first start out by thanking everyone who supported MyChurch’s missions trip to downtown Los Angeles through prayer or any other means. I truly feel the trip was a big success as it went safely, our group members each took something away from the trip, and we had a very positive impact while we were there.

Due to a few recent instances of folks coming across my references to them in my blogs, I had originally planned to switch things up a bit. I don’t believe I’ve written anything terribly offensive about anyone, but I want to avoid even the notion that I am writing about someone intentionally behind their back. So, going forward my plan was to write about people in uber-generic terms to preclude the possibility of anyone identifying themselves in my blogs. I ran this idea by a person who may or may not be my wife and he/she didn’t object.

For example, before I may have said something like “and then Sally Jenkins walked out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to her shoe. She must have been (dingle)very embarrassed!” That same event description will now go something like “a person did something unintentional and I witnessed it. They must have been (dingle)very embarrassed!” You as the reader may be asking if I am concerned as to what impact this tactic will have on my blog’s readability. Yes, yes I am. I hope it gives it some.

If you are looking forward to this new plan of censorship, I am going to have to disappoint you.  It will not be implemented until the near future. In this writeup, I shall name names! Primarily because everyone involved was warned a blog was inevitable, and secondarily because everyone on the trip was incredible. With the exception of someone I will, in an effort to preserve their anonymity, refer to only as Nordan Jolan. Mr. Jolan, despite several warnings that his exploits would be written for all of the world to see (and by “all of the world” I am referring to you and my mom) continued to taunt and harass me for reasons you will soon see (Assuming you continue to read this entry…that’s called a teaser!). As a result, I told Jordan Nolan…err….I mean Nordan Jolan (ooops…almost let the cat out of the bag on that one) I would have my revenge in my blog. One possible method of revenge I thought about was to use his name as a surrogate for bodily excretions. For example: “I wouldn’t go in there if I were you, I just dropped an enormous Nordan Jolan.” But no, I shall refrain as I am much to classy to resort to those kind of underhanded tactics!

Of course I jest, the whole missions team (including Jordan Nolan) was great! There were ten of us in total: Dan and Erica Farmer, Tina and Shawn Chaput, Erik Olson, Sydney Cope, Kristy Debaun, Mark Vanderlee, Jordan Nolan, and myself. I had a blast over 4 days with each of them as it is clear that everyone has an awesome heart for God and to serve others. And to top things off, everyone was a pleasure to be around (even as the time between showers grew longer and longer).

For those unaware of the trip, we were heading to downtown Los Angeles to work in Skid Row for a few days. Due to the unpredictability of the situation and the drug problem in the area, I knew there was a small element of danger to contend with. And I did indeed encounter danger as I had probably my two closest scrapes with death during the trip, both of which occurred on the freeway traveling to our destination. Were it not for your prayers for our safety, our trip could have certainly ended up resulting in a skid on the road (subtle play on words). However our driver Dan Farmer should consider a career change to stunt driving. Not only did he steer us out of those situations, but he somehow managed to squeeze a 12 passenger van into some openings I would have heretofore thought impossible without the aid of a shrink ray. I could tell Dan enjoys driving the harrowing California freeways because he told me so (and there was also the mischievous smile he maintained the entire time he drove).

This picture adequately captures my view in the van for the 4 day trip. It does not adequately capture the…errr….ummm…fragrance that resulted towards the end of our (single-shower allowed) week. Just kidding companions, you did not smell!

This was my view to the left. I wish I can say he wasn’t staring like that the whole trip, but I choose not to.

We made it safely to our destination on Thursday afternoon. We were staying at the Center for Student Missions (CSM) building in South Los Angeles. Of course, South Los Angeles is the more tourist friendly nickname adopted by the city as a replacement for it’s previous title: South Central Los Angeles. I found this out after submitting my nonrefundable deposit.

Thankfully I am a human chameleon. A master of disguise if you will and figured I would just have to blend in with the urban population. I would just have to dust off my old “street” vocabulary and practice greeting strangers with phrases like: “greetings my homey? Would you care to join me in a rousing match of gat shooting over yonder?” The CSM building was nearly as adaptable as I am and featured some legitimate looking graffiti which said “Did you know you are free in Christ”. I thought that was very cool.

And, despite the sleeping arrangements being in a rough part of town, at least it was directly across the road from train tracks.

View from the door to the housing showing the proximity of a passing train.

The CSM building can best be described as “functional”. There is a large meeting room with a few couches and the majority of the remaining space is for two large sleeping areas: 1 for guys and 1 for girls. Each sleeping area is filled with wooden bunk beds. I wasn’t expecting the Ritz-Carlton by any means (and frankly I wouldn’t want CSM using their funds for our comfort anyway – especially after visiting the people we visited on the trip) and the reality was in-line with this. The mattresses were most likely donated (ie. looked very used) and as I was a result I was forced to get over a few of my germ-related phobias. Someone in our group was gracious enough to bring up the ideas of bedbugs (I will not say who brought this up but the safe money is on Nordan) which did wonders for our sleep (sarcasm) and amplified every little itch we felt (no sarcasm). The more I thought about it the more comfortable I became as I assumed the vast quantities of ammonia present in the urine on the mattresses probably killed any bedbugs. Once the lights went out though, I slept like a baby. And by that I mean intermittently as there were at least two impressive snorers in our room. Thankfully I brought my earplugs which did wonders.

Sleeping arrangements for the dudes.

Most of the things I described above (which are really no worse than minor inconveniences) probably don’t even register with most of the people doing missions work with CSM as the majority of people are middle or high schoolers (thus explaining the “Student” reference in CSM’s name). Our group, consisting of a single high schooler and 9 people who hadn’t set foot in a high school since last century, stuck out a bit. I will give Nordan credit for a very humorous observation when he pointed out that, to all of the kids, our group “looked like lectures.” While the other ministry teams were playing games and goofing around, our group spent a good half hour discussing our fondness for Costco and incorporating coupons into budgets (that is the literal truth).

My last observation in regards to the housing unit has to do with the restrooms. There were 4 restrooms total to handle the various “needs” of a good 30-40 people. This made time in the restroom a premium and people were routinely doubling-up when brushing teeth and such. I received a good amount of ribbing for time spent in the restroom preparing for the day. Some of us (cough…Nordan…cough) assumed this was a camping trip and therefore brought only a dress shirt for church and flint for making fire. Knowing we were sleeping in beds and utilizing restrooms, I brought my regular toiletries. I was mocked fairly incessantly for my hygiene regimen with the terms “astringent”, “exfoliate”, “loofa”, “product”, and “cucumber mask” being used well into the triple figures. And while most of those were extreme exaggerations (I will not deny that a little astringent may have made it’s way into my bag) it is important to apply skin moisturizer regularly to lengthen the life of your skin. I will have the last laugh in 10 years when my facial skin is still baby smooth and Nordan is indistinguishable with the Marlboro Man or a leather wallet.

And, despite bringing half of my bathroom with me, I also did “rough it” a little as well. The mirror height was clearly optimal for middle schoolers but, when I used it standing up, I had an excellent view of my shoulders to my hips. While doing my hair in the mornings (with hair gel that Nordan ended up borrowing – I love poetic justice) I was forced to spread my legs out like an awkward giraffe at a watering hole.

Alright, enough observations on the CSM building. You are asking, what did we do? A lot as it turned out!

Our first night in we went out as a group to a Honduran restaurant. I was very nervous about trying new foods as I can be pretty picky. However, the food turned out to be AMAZING!! It was a beef dish called “Wednesday” for the day it is on special. That is all I know except that I loved it and everyone else seemed to enjoy their dinner as well.

The Honduran delicacy known as “Wednesday”.

After dinner, we took a prayer tour of the area. Our CSM host Jennifer showed us several points of interest in South Los Angeles including one of the largest housing projects in the country and a charter school doing some amazing things to help educate the area’s youth. We learned about how kids in the area are routinely recruited by gangs when they are as young as 8 years old. We stopped and prayed in the area for the city and youth and for entities like the charter school and education system to help kids break some of the cycles in the area.

We then drove through Skid Row at night. It was very sobering to see all of the tents pitched on the street and then to drive only a few blocks away and find ourselves in the financial district, near the Staples center, and the ESPN Studios (which we did NOT pray over for the record…despite my requests). Our CSM host directed us to some water gardens located under a huge skyscraper in downtown. It was a very neat area. She had us lay down and pray for the people and area we just saw. Laying down to pray was a very interesting experience as it is unusual, uncomfortable, cold, and some folks mentioned it made them feel vulnerable. And this was just a taste of what the people living on skid row experience all night every night.

After that, it was time for bed as we had a very early morning (leaving at 5:30!). Of course, waking up early is something our group is probably more comfortable with than for the high schoolers. Because we are old.

Our Friday morning activity was to help serve breakfast at the Midnight Mission located on Skid Row. We came in through the parking garage and were thus unable to see how many people line up for the breakfast. But, seeing as we served about 800 people, it must have been a formidable line. The breakfast had already been prepared by folks who start cooking at 1 in the morning. Each of us had a spot in the serving line. I was responsible on one side for serving the muffins and, in addition, there was French toast and syrup, bacon, oatmeal, fruit cups, and the beverage (7Up or Sprite). Disabled folks were brought in first to eat (and were also given Orange Juice). After they were done, the lines were opened and homeless folks poured in to get their food.

This was my first encounter working with homeless folks and it was eye opening. Some looked like I thought they would, but many did not. There were all manner different ethnicities, ages, and genders (ok, so by “all manner” I mean both in this case) represented. Many of the people were genuinely happy which really put things into perspective for me. Some didn’t want to look me in the eye and it made my heart break to think of how it must hurt their pride to wait in line for a free meal with 799 other people.

I really enjoyed talking to some of the people who were coordinating the meal. It is our feeling that they were participants in the Midnight Mission’s rehabilitation program and therefore used to be on the streets themselves. They were fun to work with and hardcore about getting people in and out efficiently.

After everyone in line was fed (which can get up to almost 1,200 people on some days it sounds like) we sat down to eat some of the food we were serving. It was pretty darn good! There was a carton of grapefruit juice that I happily poured a drink from not realizing it was straight grapefruit juice (with possibly some extra sour added for good measure). Yowza! I think I sprouted three additional chest hairs by the time the drink was finished (bringing my total to a respectable 4).

We then headed over to the LA Mission which was very close. Also located on skid row it is a Christian organization working to rehabilitate homeless folks. There are about 200 people in their 14 month program that uses routine, responsibility, and God’s Word to get folks off of drugs and ready to get jobs when they leave. People have to apply to get in and, once accepted, are held to very high standards (drug tested twice per week randomly and lose their spot in the program if they test positive at all). We met a woman named Sheila who had some tasks for us to help with. She took the ladies to help fold laundry and the guys were driven to the LA Mission’s warehouse a few blocks away. We were introduced to Alex, the warehouse manager who needed our help sweeping and mopping his warehouse so he could pass fire inspection. We talked with Alex as we worked and found out he had an awesome story. He got into drugs in his late 20’s and found himself on the streets. He joined the LA Mission program and graduated back in 1996. He is now managing their warehouse. We were all amazed to learn that he had been on the streets at any point. Both he and Sheila were amazing folks who were serving God enthusiastically and joyfully. They were awesome inspirations and I hope we were able to help and encourage them while we were there.

Most of the guys from our group with Alex in the middle. Nordan was taking the picture.

After our chores were done, we were given a tour of skid row by a guy named John who was the alumni president of the LA Mission. He knew everybody on the streets it seemed and had built a good reputation there. He walked us around a few blocks pointing out some interesting things, like how there are $2,000 artist lofts located right on skid row that are a hot commodity. He also showed us the medical and dental center where homeless folks can receive medical attention by UCLA and USC medical students and interns. He also pointed out the people waiting at the exit to try and buy drugs off of folks who receive prescriptions at the medical center.

It was encouraging on one hand to see that the folks on Skid Row are being served. They can get food when they need it from the missions. Medical and Dental (and even legal) help is provided by volunteers. But it was also reiterated over and over by John and others that the main problem facing the folks on Skid Row was drug addiction and mental illness. These are huge problems and it was heartbreaking to see the homeless folks battling one or both of these conditions. It was also awesome to see guys like John who were on the streets and who now dedicate their lives to knowing and helping others on the streets. More than that, they are bringing the only real solution to the folks who need Him: Jesus.

After the LA Mission, we headed over to the Los Angeles Food Bank to volunteer for a few hours (very active day!). We learned about how the food bank operates and how it helps people through a short video starring Elmo. As we were visiting on a Friday our task was to help go through crates and crates of food determining what was still good to be served next week and what had to be thrown away.

Nordan and Dan Farmer laying eggs…into the trash can.

Using my highly refined price-tag recognition skills I was able to ascertain that much of the food we were going through was provided by Wal-Mart. Of course 99% of the food was past it’s expiration date but the Food Bank had a guide showing how long after expiration they keep the foods. For example, breads were kept 2 weeks after expiration, Milk and eggs were 3-5 days, and things like canned food (assuming it wasn’t dented) and soda were kept indefinitely. This was eye-opening and I regret not taking the list home to use in my own home!! Despite the fact that the food bank would keep food for extended periods after expiration, we still had to throw away A LOT of food. It was sad dumping hundreds of pounds of food knowing people are hungry. Thankfully there are programs like the food bank and missions making use of a lot of the food.

Speaking of missions, someone made the connection that the food we ate that morning and for lunch at the missions no doubt came from the food bank. I was just glad to have found this out after sorting the food as I was previously an expiration date eliminator with no exceptions. I would have been a little nervous knowing I was eating food that was weeks past it’s “best by” date.

Group photo at the food bank (from left to right: our group)

Our final activity of the day was dinner. This time were taken to a Nicaraguan restaurant. I did not think the food could get any better than the “Wednesday” I enjoyed at the Honduran restaurant, but I was happily surprised! The food here was incredible! I had a chicken dish served with plantains and “Squeaky” cheese.

My Nicaraguan dish.

The only thing that could have been better would be an even creepier doll to stare at. In the corner of the restaurant was something I can only describe as “this”:

Dan and Erica graciously framing the doll so I could take a picture of it without blatantly walking up to it.

Is there anything freakier than that?! Well, except maybe this:

For the life of me I could not figure out that doll’s purpose. I imagine the owner thinking to himself: “Hmmmm….I need something to make my customers feel at ease. Perhaps a nice tranquil painting of a secluded pond and a waterfall? No. I’ll take THAT THING!!”

This picture shows when we finally got the nerve to approach the doll thing. As you can see, Sydney was still slightly traumatized. (From left to right: Jennifer, Mark, Tina, Dan, Sydney, Shawn, Kristi, Jordan, Erica, Erik)

We got a good night of sleep that evening and headed out the next morning around 9:30 to participate in the “City Search”. This was the activity I was most intimidated by. We were broken up into groups of 3 or 4 and given a set of tasks to perform within a maybe 10-15 square block area of downtown Los Angeles.

The two guys I was partnered up with. Great. This should go well.

The tasks were designed to get us to think about how difficult it would be to live in downtown LA (whether you were homeless or not). For example, we had to look for water to fill up a water bottle (incredibly difficult as it turns out), ask about employment at three businesses, find out how much it is to rent a loft, and inquire about the cost to rent a room for a night at the famous Biltmore hotel. These tasks really emphasized how hard it would be to find a place to live, get employment, and even just get a drink of water downtown.

The most intimidating aspect was finding strangers and opening a discussion. We had to look for a native Los Angelan, a tourist, and a homeless person to ask 6 questions. Some of the questions had to do with what they liked most and least about LA and led to asking who they though Jesus Christ was/is and what he would do about the homeless. Finally, we were given $4 each for lunch and an additional $4 to find a homeless person to take to lunch and ask the questions to. If my comfort zone were represented by the playing field at the University of Arizona football stadium, this task had me in Paris.

It is amazing how many excuses you will find to not walk up to a stranger and invite them to lunch. I struggled with judging whether someone needed a lunch or not (who am I to guess that?) and whether they were a good candidate to ask (ie. Were they alone? Did they appear to speak English, etc.). Our group finally got the courage to ask a few guys and the remarkable thing was, when asked if they wanted lunch, most of the guys said that, more than anything, they just wanted some water. One guy did accept our invite so we bought him a burger and tried to talk with him a bit. I felt so bad because we couldn’t understand more than a few words of what he was saying so we couldn’t really hold a conversation.

On our way back to the rendezvous, we ran into another guy panhandling. We asked if he wanted a lunch and his response cracked me up. He said “I’ve been eating pretty well lately actually, but I’ll take a milkshake”. We ran to McDonald’s and brought it back to him and struck up a conversation. This guy (Brian) was in his early 50’s and had been on the streets since 2002. I gathered there was some mental illness as he alluded to it briefly. He had tried to get accepted at a rehabilitation program run by a mission but said that, if he was able to keep up with all of the appointments he had to follow, etc. he’d just have a job. We talked to him a bit about who Jesus was and hopefully planted a seed. If you think about it, please keep Brian and the first gentleman we talked to (Joseph) in your prayers (for their safety and getting back on their feet).

Once we all rendezvoused, our guide took us to the Grandview Retirement home. There we ran bingo for the residents (who took their Bingo seriously in some cases!). We met some very cool people there and hopefully facilitated them having fun for 2 hours.

Our last ethnic meal was at an Armenian restaurant. I had the beef schwarma. Apparently this type of food was very similar to Greek food, but I hadn’t really tried Greek food before. I thought the Armenian food was delicious though. I was so nervous about trying the food on this trip and yet each dish was better than the next!

Partially eaten schwarma. I forgot to take a picture before I began devouring it.

Our last event was a debrief that was supposed to happen at the Griffith Observatory. As it turns out, the Griffith Observatory is a popular hangout spot on Saturday nights. We drove and drove looking for parking (finally finding some literally miles away). A few members of the group decided to try to find a nice view of the Los Angeles Valley by climbing a hill. They determined the view was satisfactory and told us all to come up. Well, little did we know, there weren’t even any stairs! All 11 of us (with our CSM host included) had to scale a very steep hill passing through foliage I was sincerely hoping was not poison ivy. The view we found was incredible though.

“Yay! We are still alive!”

We prayed over the city and for the people we met and then headed back. I wanted so badly to find some sort of a wild animal sound to play through my phone as we tromped around in the wilderness. Something for the group to remember me by, you know? AT&T’s 3G service could use some improvements on the mountain though and my evil plan did not come to fruition.

Our last day featured an activity I was really looking forward to: a visit to the worship service at West Angeles Church of God in Christ. This primarily African-American church is located on Crenshaw Blvd and is enormous! The sanctuary seats about 5,000 people and they have a membership of about 22,000 (including Magic Johnson and Denzell Washington – this according to Wikipedia).

I had an awesome time at the church. The people there were incredibly welcoming and they know how to worship! One of their songs at one point says, “dance” and did that church dance! It was awesome. I would have participated but my dancing is less a pleasing sight to the Lord as it is a call for emergency services to assist the guy having a seizure. The Bishop preached an encouraging sermon and some people were saved. It was a great experience to see how others worship.

Us all gussied up in front of the cathedral.

The church was our last formal activity and so we headed back to the housing building and packed up in about 18 minutes, ensuring to leave the traditional graffiti before we left. Actually, the graffiti wasn’t done in 18 minutes. We had done it the night before (that’s how adults roll! Preparation!)

Door art signed by myself, Sydney, Kristi, Eglotu, Soopytr, and 6 doctors.

Me putting the final touches on my modernistic masterpiece capturing the plight of urban youth I’ve titled: “Nordan was on the bathroom floor.”

Overall the trip was a great experience. It was a little different than what I envisioned, but it was awesome in it’s own way. Hopefully we were able to encourage the folks working at the missions who are on the streets everyday building relationships and sharing about Christ. I also pray we make a difference in the lives of the homeless folks we talked to personally and that we planted a seed for them accept Jesus if they don’t already know Him. If you think about it, please pray for the people living on the streets in (and in Tucson). That they would overcome the addictions that are preventing them from getting back on their feet. Please pray for the mothers and fathers in South LA to step up and be positive influences in their kid’s lives so the children are grounded when the gang members come around to recruit. And, if you ever get the chance to take this trip or to even help out locally, please jump at the chance. There are moments that are uncomfortable and things that we are normally not comfortable doing, but not only are you helping people in need like Jesus asks us to do in Matthew 25:45, you’ll grow your self and develop a new perspective on our “problems”.

Again, thanks everyone for your support and prayers!!

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