As I review the past several years, there are many accomplishments that I can be proud of. I have been able to maintain a 3. 95 grade point average while in high school. At the same time, I have had the good fortune to act as President of the National Honor Society at Keller High School. I have also been able to lead the drum line battery of the school marching band as the Captain. I have also dedicated much of my spare time to working with youth at Gateway Church as a Youth Group Leader. Finally, I was given the chance to be nominated as Keller High School’s Homecoming King in 2008.
All of these accomplishments have helped shape the person I have become. However, the most significant experience that has impacted my life was the time I spent at the Dream Center in one of the many slum neighborhoods of Los Angeles. “No red or blue clothing,” is what caught my attention as I embarked on the journey to Los Angeles. Simply wearing the trademark colors of the famous Bloods and Crips gangs was something to be avoided. This rule stuck with me more than any other rule or guideline that I had been presented with.
Suddenly, the task I was about to undertake became real and I was honestly frightened about what I was going to see. I had been given vivid illustrations about the poverty and death that I was about to witness. However, growing up in an upper middle class neighborhood didn’t prepare me for the reality that many people face each day. I asked myself how do I pray for people whose best days are not even comparable to my worst days. Soon I was able to see firsthand where I would be staying for the next two weeks as I tried to find an answer.
The building was called the Dream Center. The fact that I grew up in an affluent neighborhood didn’t prepare me for the horrid accommodations I would be living with. Before settling in I was given a nametag that identified me as a member of the Gateway Church. Although needed for identification, my badge was as irrelevant as a Christmas tree on Halloween. For two weeks I would not be known by the affluent suburb of my origin, but I would be known as a fifteen year old, six foot two, African American male who was a temporary guest of a fifteen story homeless shelter.
I accepted my nametag and proceeded to my room. I quickly took in my surroundings and came to the conclusion that my temporary living quarters could certainly be compared to a prison. The room was stark and devoid of any emotion or color. The white walls made the room appear harsh and unfriendly. My roommates and I had only three bunk beds, a nightstand, a closet, a toilet, a sink and six towels, which made for uncomfortable conditions. However, this simplicity allowed us to step outside our comfort zone and prepare ourselves for the work ahead.
The white-stained walls, questionable mattress stains, unfamiliar smells, and random bed linens left our young imaginations to do their work, but there wasn’t time to dwell on it – there was work to do! This work was rewarding. There were many opportunities to serve, both individually and as part of a larger group. Some of these missions were optional and some were mandatory. However, this didn’t matter. What truly mattered was the work I was able to engage in so that I could make a small attempt to improve the lives of others. I was able to feed the homeless, work with the children’s ministry and work with the food truck ministry.
After a very short time, I realized the dedication of the permanent staff at the Dream Center. I only had the night to rest and I was constantly busy with one task or another during the day. I began to look up to the people who did this job each and every day. During my free time, I engaged in Bible study, prayer groups and devotions in order to prepare for the most challenging and demanding event that was to come. It was an event that would change my life forever. On July 19, 2007 at 5:00pm I began to prepare for a journey that would impact the course of my future.
The Skid Row Missions leader gave a short thirty minute preparation speech about the mission I was about to embark upon. “You are about to embark on one of the most rewarding, frightening, and most dangerous events of your life,” are the words that I will never forget. He led a prayer, gave instructions and also gave caution about the danger of the job I was about to do. I looked around at the others in my group and saw similar emotions on their faces – I was excited and I was scared but the most intense emotion I was feeling was eagerness to go out and do something for someone in need.
“Be smart, be alert, be careful, and trust in God”, our church leader warned as we boarded the fifteen-passenger Ford vans that would take us from relative safety to the harsh and dangerous street known as Skid Row. The van weaved in and out of the notorious Los Angeles traffic making me feel as if I were riding a rollercoaster. I took in my surroundings as they turned grim and dark. The skyscrapers were shot into the darkening sky like a bullet fired to start the Kentucky Derby. New technology and infrastructure meshed with old landmarks to create eye candy for everyone who paid any degree of attention.
My excitement began to fade as I saw the sign. The massive green sign that said “SKID ROW-NEXT EXIT”, reminded me that it was time to become alienated in the new world I was venturing into. I immediately began to sense darkness and death even though it was daylight and everyone around me was alive. My fear soon faded and was replaced with an inner peace from God that told me that I was right where I needed to be. One member of our group voiced what we were all thinking, “Is this safe? ” It didn’t matter anymore – what mattered was that we had arrived and we had a job to do.
We couldn’t have known that this simple question would come up again and again as we did our ministry work. We began our ministry by passing out Ozarka water and Famous Amos cookies. We were immediately tested by a large African American male in tattered clothing. He asked for two waters but we had been specifically instructed to only give out one water and one snack to each person. After five minutes of listening to escalating expletives as unpredictable as an F-5 tornado in Texas, we finally gave him a second water. We feared enough for our safety that we felt we had no choice.
We continued our work under a thinly disguised veil of complete terror. As we proceeded down the dark streets, I had to constantly remind myself that I was not watching a movie. The people I saw were real and were suffering from very real afflictions. I was able to look past this reality by praying for the people I came into contact with. I prayed for healing, strength, jobs, addictions and sickness and many other things that were on the hearts of these poverty-stricken people. As I prayed, I also began to ponder the images I was seeing. The images began to way heavy on my heart and I wondered how people could live this way.
The most important question I asked myself was, “Why isn’t anyone doing something about this? ” I received my answer when I realized that I was doing something. It was something small but it was something. As the trip to the Dream Center came to an end, I was left with a heavy heart and a deep passion to help the poverty-stricken people living in Los Angeles. The Gateway Church youth group was able to break apart my arrogant, spoiled mentality so that I could move toward the mentality of someone who is in survival mode. I stepped into someone else’s everyday life, and had to survive based on the little that I knew.
I learned that the world is very different than the small corner of the world where I live. It is my job as someone who has experienced the troubled world to tell other people what the real world is like, so that we can work together to be the voice of the people who struggle to simply survive. I will no longer consider perfect grades and being crowned Homecoming King as my most important accomplishments. Instead, I now know that the events of this trip did more to help me develop into the man I am today and they also set the precedent for the man I will be in the future.