It was a day filled with humbling and reflection. I woke up at 7 am (on a weekend – that’s gotta be a record) to go train at Checkmat La Habra at 8 am, and I began my day with some good old butt-kicking. And by butt-kicking, I mean my butt was being kicked (figuratively, because it’s a grappling sport) by pretty much every training partner I sparred with. However, I’m grateful to my teammates for teaching me things here and there to help me improve my game; they really do a good job of making me feel like we’re not fighting with one another, but fighting for one another. After six or seven sparring sessions, I rushed home, showered, and raced off to Union Rescue Mission.
When I got there – in a surprisingly quick twenty-eight minutes – I immediately began noticing the streets were more and more populated with the homeless, and I began to realize that this wasn’t just some walk-in-the-park, go-home-and-never-think-about-it-again type of outreach event. There are actually lives that are depending on URM to get by day to day. I saw Andrew in the underground parking, and we eventually found our way to the kitchen (after much confusion about where the other folks were and where we were actually serving), and we began to put on our gloves, hairnets, and aprons. The first thing we were asked to do was to remove bags of taco meat or enchilada meat from steaming water and empty out the contents into metal trays. Bag after bag was dumped in as we were helped by a resident whom we’ll call Denny (just in case there are legal issues with putting his real name). Denny told us about how he enrolled himself in the rehab program at URM and said that they were giving him really good help with it, suggesting that if we knew anyone who needed help with addiction, this was a good place to bring them; I let him know that we didn’t know anyone who’d need the service at the moment. Eventually, we looked up and saw the others had arrived, and we said hi to them. Once we finished emptying the meat into the trays, they had us crack eggs into buckets, and Daniel and Andrew and I joked around a little as we were doing so – they’d later use the eggs for fried rice. After that, I left Andrew and Daniel and went over to Denny to ask him if I could help with anything, and we got to making pizzas that they would be serving the next day. I mainly sprinkled the beef sausage on top of the pizzas, and then Denny would pass me another pizza to cover – we must have made about fifty pizzas that were to be frozen before we were finished! Once the pizzas were taken care of, one of the main chefs motioned for me to ask another chef how I could help, and I found myself deep frying potstickers. He demonstrated once, gave me some tips on how to know when to remove them and how to alternate sides of the deep fryer, and then he left for a little bit. When he came back, he said, “You already got the hang of it!” and I laughed, thinking, “This is practically in my blood.” I kept frying up potstickers until 1 pm, which was when our break started.
During break, Daniel, Alan, and Caleb found a basketball court, so naturally, we all got to hooping. After a while, some of the residents at the URM center came in, and we got some three-on-threes going. Daniel, Alan, and a resident we’ll call Russ were on one team, and Andrew, a resident we’ll call Kenyon, and I were on the other. It was nice because we didn’t really have a chance to interact with the people being served by URM from the kitchen, and so even just being united by “ball is life” was an opportunity to learn about them a little bit and to just spend time with them. We didn’t keep count, but Russ definitely torched our team.
After the break, we got back to the kitchen, and Alan, Daniel, and I were asked to shovel some chicken fried rice into metal trays which would be used for dinner. Eventually, we plastic-wrapped the containers and then put a sheet of foil on top to keep them warm for dinner. From here, I went back to opening up bags of enchilada meat, and Daniel and Alan were helping to wrap up enchiladas and label them. When the clock hit the three o’ clock mark, we left.
What I realized from my time at URM was how casually it could all be done, and how frequently I had to be mindful of how I approached serving the homeless. It almost seemed too brutal to make it a one-and-done situation, and I have a strong desire to come back next week or another week and continue serving and building relationships with the people working in the kitchen. In a place where we’re directly serving the homeless, it’s difficult to continue philosophizing about reasons why they’re homeless or making sure that the theology was right as we walked past verses posted on the walls – being in such direct service demands a complete focus on producing a thoughtfully prepared product and a complete removal of self. I saw how much less privileged people on Skid Row were than me, and in serving at URM, I found that there was very little thought spared for myself and my own comfort – there’s just really no space for it. When we serve out of the overflow of knowing God’s goodness in our lives, whatever pride or success or self-approval that might come in the way completely disappears because, in contrast with the hardships our neighbors have to endure, there’s no longer any value left in those things; in the meantime, compassion reigns. Matthew 25:35-40 came to mind, which reads: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
There’s still so much to be done, and yes, we can sit back and ponder (usually judgmentally and with little compassion) how the homeless got into the situations that they’re in. However, there’s far more to be learned just by serving them and investing bit by bit in their lives.
This song was playing as I was driving to URM, and I think it’s fitting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TCh31xg4vA