Union Rescue Mission.

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

Hey, There’s a Verse on That Bottle.

So, tonight, my fellowship, AACF (Asian American Christian Fellowship), had a Halloween outreach event at around 10PM in front of Jesus Burgers, a nearby locale that serves the people of IV by cooking burgers for them on Friday evenings. What the event entailed was grouping up and passing out water bottles to people ambling the streets of IV, looking for parties or walking off the alcohol they’ve consumed, and the general sense of the night was to show love to the citizens of IV by serving them and attempting to share the Gospel with them.  Going off my experience last year with the event, I only ended up passing out water bottles without saying a word, and making someone cry; I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of a repeat performance.

This year, if I’m honest, I only went in support of and to stand in solidarity with the leaders of inreach/outreach ministry.  My heart in the matter was just to make sure to set an example for other AACFers in giving God’s work a chance no matter the environment.  I didn’t really expect to talk to anyone at all, and I was fairly cynical about the whole situation producing any productive conversations because I was convinced that these people roaming the streets were the rocky places spoken of in Mark 4:5.  However, God was faithful to His work and humbled me in my assumption that the night would be another night of unfortunate silence, producing three memorable instances (among many) where I was able to really launch into a quality conversation with a complete stranger.

The night started off rather poorly, as a brother of mine felt understandably uneasy with the theology of some of the people we were working alongside, and it set a daunting tone for the rest of the evening.  I told the brother to pray over it and follow God’s peace, then set to pass out water bottles quietly. At first, the water bottles were handed out without any allusion or mention of the Gospel, but I guess Jeremiah 20:9 really spoke to and through me tonight, and the mentioning of Christ was indeed like a fire shut up in my bones that I could not hold in.  Soon, God gave me the idea to just tell people to even read the verse on the bottle, using it as an opener to anyone who might be interested in getting deeper in what I had to share with them.  This little tactic led to three conversations, each entirely unique and completely encouraging.

The first conversation was with a guy who came up to me, asking for water.  As I gave it to him, I told him to try and check out the verse that was on the bottle, and he actually stopped at the corner of Jesus Burgers with me, and read it.  Curious, I asked him what verse he read, and he told me it was John 16:33 (I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.). I asked him if he knew what it meant, and he shook his head, and then I proceeded to tell him about a God who loves us and gave His Son to die for us that we might overcome the chaos in this world through the knowledge of him, which brings peace to our hearts.  He seemed interested in what I had to say, and thanked me for the water before proceeding to the rest of his evening.

The second conversation was with another guy I handed water to.  This person seemed considerably more intoxicated than the first guy, but not obnoxiously so.  I told him to read the verse, and he glanced at it, then began to talk about the Bible. I asked him if he was brought up in the church, and he told me that he was brought up Catholic, but converted to Christianity on the basis that Catholicism had too many ceremonies and rituals whereas Christianity allowed for the freedom to love God in any way.  He began sharing a bit of his life story, saying he’d been struggling with his faith, having a father who left him when he was eleven years old, and realizing that that departure was God providing him with strength, and he wanted to use that strength to help people who were weaker than him be as strong as he was.  He talked about how he believed God gave us strength so we could help others, and spread positivity around the world.  Although I might have judged him a little based on how liberally he was speaking, I did pray that God would straighten his path and bring back that brother to Himself.

The final memorable conversation that I had was with Patrick from Germany, the only name I managed to get all evening. He was wearing a demon jester costume, and stopped by for rehydration.  I asked him as well to read the verse, and he opened by asking me about how I felt about the Pope changing the Church’s stance on evolution.  I told him my opinion, which does potentially clash with creationist views; I explained that I believed the two need not necessarily be mutually exclusive, but to use one to explain the other would be difficult because they are fundamentally on two different planes of thought and experience.  He agreed with what I had to say, and told me that he was Christian as well, but admitted that he wasn’t the most devout Christian.  He told me that hearing about this new Pope gave him some hope and some pride in being a Christian because the Pope seems to be a legitimately good person, and I agreed, the Pope was a very good Pope.  I then asked him where he was from and discovered he was from Germany, and we talked soccer for a bit before he clutched my shoulder gently and said that he was glad to have met me, and then we exchanged names.  I bid him a good evening, and he and his friend walked away.  I would later see them, and they cheerily greeted me.

All told, tonight’s Halloween outreach was definitely humbling and eye-opening. It humbled me because I thought I knew what God had planned for the evening, and I guess I lost hope in the salvation of IV during the Halloween season; it was eye-opening because it showed me how I was unknowingly limiting God’s power to work through me by using me as a vessel to try and speak truth into the lives of total strangers.  I’m definitely grateful that He guided me to go out to the water bottle outreach this year, and I just praise Him for the aforementioned conversations; without God’s help, I would have been rendered just as mute as the previous year, but by His grace, I was able to speak of Him to at least two or three people in Isla Vista.  If it seems like I’m boasting, I hope it seems like a boast in Christ because that is what I intended to convey.  God brought me low expectations only to surpass them greatly and prove that Christ’s love cannot be shackled by human apprehension.  Again, like it is written in Jeremiah 20:9, holding it in will wear you out, and eventually you can’t help but speak in His name.  May this spirit of sharing the Gospel continue more and more through the year within AACF.  Praise Him.