It seems I must write

no more avoiding the truth

LA Urban Immersion

Unforgettable Moments: Signs of Hope

Entry 1 – “Soon it will be done, trouble of the world, I’m going home, to live with my Lord, I want to see my mother…”

Lorinda Hawkins’ voice: haunting and mournful. Yet rebounding with the inner strength of having overcome domestic violence and then time on Skid Row. Her story was painful to listen to, but a treasure to receive. I was struck that she might have had a preternatural foreshadowing of what her marriage, chosen “out of fear,” might hold – since she read “Mothers on Trial” just before getting married. But I cannot fathom what it must have been like, to then have life play out in such tragic fashion– have her daughter taken from her, not see her for 7 long years. I guess the courts DON’T “always side with the mother.”

I will never forget how “Loquacious Lorinda” challenged us to come out of ourselves, to give ourselves names that reflected how God sees us, to people and animate scenes depicting a hospital, loneliness and peace.

Entry 2 – “If you gotta cry, then let it cry, gotta believe it’s gonna be alright, you can be your own superhero…” “Awright, awright…” “We are the world…” “I believe I can fly…” “Love that song.”

ECHO CHOIR: youthful, earnestly singing their hearts out, led by a director you could just tell loved his job and loved these kids.

Sincere (in her 20s?): cheering them on, clapping and grooving, thanking God for answering her prayer “for some worship in this place!”

Jenaiah (9yo): asking me again and again, in response to my flowing tears, “are you sad?” I keep reassuring her, “no, I’m happy…[I touch my heart]…I’m moved…”

Isaiah (3yo): grinning up at me over and over again, while playing with his dinner.

I’m not sure what exactly it is that I’m feeling – but I’m caught in this moment. The lifted chins of these precious kids in middle or high school, their eyes scanning the audience, singing to lift the spirits of those staying at the Union Rescue Mission.  It’s working. My friend Sincere and her kids, they are loving the music!! I am loving the music! Others are swaying, some clapping, in a low-energy, it’s-the-end-of-the-day sort of way…

I think back on my time working on staff with InterVarsity in campus ministry, and it was the same sort of thing – me, like the choir director, working to develop the hearts and minds of young college students – calling them to reach out in love, live beyond themselves, care for others.

These kids are doing just that, and I feel my spirit lift. It’s a welcome change – music, of the inspirational sort. No need for conversation. We can simply share the moment. After they’re all done and the cafeteria guards tell us like they do every day that it’s time to go, my favorite little family here and I snap some pictures. So precious! Then as I leave, four of the students, all girls, run up to me. “It meant so much to us that you were crying – thank you!” Big hugs from and for each one. I’m still teary-eyed. Still not sure exactly why I’m weeping…maybe that my ability to be moved, moves others…but so glad to have been caught by the Spirit in this moment.

Entry 3 – We all go to Atitlan, and who wouldn’t, after all the encouragement from the professors to score a tasty $5 meal there? But I know I won’t watch the World Cup, and purposefully sit directly beneath the TV screen so other people can take and enjoy the other seats.

I’m curious to ask Jen about the “health issues” she alluded to three times during our morning conversation, en route to Pastor Ruben’s corner lot, and so I do, gently. She tells me about the strange epilepsy they discovered she had, soon after she and Ryan got married. How she’s been to all these famous hospitals and no one knows what else can be done. She’s on four meds.

My jaw drops, because we had been assigned the book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, for this class. And it was all about epilepsy, the Hmong culture, the American medical culture, and cross-cultural miscommunication. It gave me incredible insight into the condition’s medical complexity– and its revered status in the Hmong community, as those who had seizures were thought to have them because of a special spiritual connection with the divine. I share this with her, and her eyes widen. Jen is used to people thinking there is something demonic to blame for her epilepsy, used to people praying for her healing and trying to cast out the “deaf and dumb spirit” in her …  Not this. The Hmong accept this in their people as a rare reality…they don’t necessarily want it to just go away.

As we talk, occasionally what she shares gives me chills up and down my back, the kind I get when the Holy Spirit moves in and around me.  I tell her that, and when I text her a picture we take together, I say it again: “the holy spirit totally moves through you!!”

Hands down one of the best conversations I had all week. I will never forget her. And I will continue to pray for God’s healing work through her and in her…
Entry 4 – Since I was raised believing that Catholics were not saved/Christian/one of us… it has meant a lot to me ever since college to discover our rich shared heritage, that we are from the same stream of living water, that Catholics are saved/Christian/we are one.  So getting to know the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels was, for me, a worshipful, wonder-filled experience. I loved the alabaster windows, the contemporary design (modern without being silver and chrome!), the way the artist learned to weave tapestries after being commissioned to help build the cathedral. Ornate yet simple. Catholic yet ecumenical.  Inclusive of all people of Los Angeles, yet faithfully orthodox. Walking through, guided by Father Alexei, I was reminded of the incredible care the artisans and craftsmen took to fashion the tabernacle furnishings, to build Solomon’s temple later on. Many holy moments, walking through…

Entry 5 – I credit Jean-Paul for putting into words for me just how enjoyable it was, and freeing, to have had such “limited personal freedom” at Union Rescue Mission during our time together. It was true. Most of us loved our communal living experience, which is kind of odd, because I think we expected it to be cumbersome or logistically complicated. But in the proverbial way that boundary lines can “fall in pleasant places,” having one access card for all of us made us do everything in a pack. We would wait for each other before riding the elevator anywhere. We went places in pairs. We decided in a big group what our strategy would be for packing the car, getting coffee, and arriving for class on time. Having set meal times, being given a preset plate at each meal, sharing shower shoes so we could all shower in our half hour window… Maybe it would have gotten old after more than a week, but for me, it was refreshing to have such structure and community restrain and redefine my experience.  It reminds me of how much collective pressure Christian community can exert in a simple way just by asking the same question (“are you going to take a shower, Tina?”) – how much good can come of that (I showered at every opportunity with the rest of the women). It reminds me how much I need Christian community in my life right now, even though my husband and I are in church transition and not loving how that feels.

Entry 6 – Mary encouraged us to check out the Thursday night “homeless karaoke,” happening down the block from the URM, saying “many people say it’s one of their favorite experiences in the class.” For me, it was a curious blend of feeling at home and uneasy all at the same time.

I was reminded of the socioeconomically diverse church I loved and was a member of in Boston for 10 years – where about a third to a half of the community was homeless. At South End Church, you’d find raw, heartfelt, and slightly raucous worship. Here at this corner church where they hosted Karaoke weekly, we found the same sort of thing, except it was karaoke. At South End, people would regularly interrupt the pastor. At homeless karaoke, people talked over the announcement that an offering basket was going to be passed around – and prayer offered in the back. At South End, you’d find a motley crew of folk. Same here – streetfolk, volunteers (including a dozen from Arkansas), young, old, disheveled, quiet, everybody. Here and at South End, a sweet older couple would sit side by side in the front row, her hand resting on his knee, just taking it all in.

At the same time, I felt uneasy. An intense-looking woman wearing a large top came up to me, hand outstretched, a cigarette laying on the palm of it, a folded up piece of yellow paper between her fingertips. She kept pushing her hand out towards me, body pretty close to mine, asking me a question repeatedly. I gathered that she thought I was collecting song requests and was trying to sign up to sing. I felt flustered, slightly alarmed (she was pretty close to me, body inches apart from mine). Thankfully, I was able to point to the two older, heavyset, white women sitting beside the makeshift stage, organizing the evening. She walked towards them, crab-like, back hunched over.

Even though I otherwise felt alright, I remember initially not sure where to sit. I recall thinking that I didn’t want my back to be exposed, wanted to sit with my back against the support pillar in the middle of the room – didn’t want to sit in the second row with the rest of my classmates. I remember feeling unsure where to let my gaze land. There was so much activity, commotion, people pacing back and forth, people coming in and out, going up to sing, swaying to the music. Eventually, I settled down enough to appreciate and enjoy the surroundings. But I remember feeling like I should remain vigilant, protective of my classmates. I felt like I was surely more comfortable here than others, I should look out for them. I kind of wanted to model engagement with the people and the environment and sign up to sing a song, wanted to sing a song that would bear some sort of witness to Christ and God’s love, but then didn’t know what to sing, where to start.

So at some point, I was ready earlier than most to go back.  Others had arrived at URM and needed to be let in. I found them, and then even though I wanted to stay in and get some reading done, I encouraged them to go, saying, “you just hafta see it…you don’t want to miss this,” and accompanied two sets of people there, shuttling back and forth. I found this a bit surprising in me. An eagerness to go and be there and share it with others, and a desire to be above or beside it – not fully engaged.

Entry 7 – Our last night together, some of decided to visit the Dream Center/Angelus Temple – and get dinner together first. After lots of back and forth determining who was interested in coming – we loaded up the car, looked at each other, then laughed – it was a car full of Asians J. And from that moment, a wonderful evening together ensued! Diane drove us through Chinatown and into Echo Park for some Chicago deep-dish pizza at Masa’s. Over conversation about our class, somehow Pramil and Wilson got to describing their immersion experience in Tanzania the previous summer, and a type of listening/prophetic prayer they learned how to do called “treasure-hunting.” Pramil came alive and became known to me in that moment, as he recounted what specific details they heard from God to look out for on their walk – and what amazing things would happen as they encountered those individuals on the road! It made me want to go to the School of Intercultural Studies after finishing my MDiv! Then we walked through Echo Park Lake – hearing Diane mention the demographic changes there over time – before circling back to go to the 7 pm service at Angelus Temple. That, to me, felt more of a culture shock than the week we spent at Skid Row! A mostly white set of folk up front, a worship service characterized by “high production value,” and then a young self-described “shouting preacher” who encouraged us to cheer him on if we agreed with his message. I wished the young woman from Long Island who was sharing about her involvement in the women’s discipleship program at the Dream Center was given more time to share – and the shouting preacher a bit less. We ended up leaving mid-way through the service, as discreetly as we could – each heading to the bathroom a few minutes after the others, until we were all gone. We got back to the car after debriefing on the walk home, and decided to pray and ask God for forgiveness if we’d had a judgmental spirit about what we’d seen. Then our prayer time became something notable, as Diane thanked God for each of us by name, and for specific traits that we had (mine was for being “gently bossy”!!!!).  Somehow, our time was characterized by such ease, mutual enjoyment of each other, and wonderful humor. Diane commented that at her age, humor was one of life’s pleasures that she could still enjoy.  Dinner at Masa’s, Echo Park Lake, Dream Center/Angelus Temple, prayer afterwards…It was a perfect night, I said, and she agreed. I reflect on this to treasure this moment in my heart. J

Entry 8 – I’ll try to keep this one brief. One woman from our class, C, kept making cryptic comments about her past throughout the class, mostly in the larger group sharing times. She alluded so often to people who have experienced sexual assault – in such a way that it seemed obvious she was probably included in that category. So when, on the last day, we were in the same small group once again, and there was a lull in conversation, I gently asked her what her story was, if she felt comfortable sharing. So she did – and even now as I try to recount it, I realize I am trying to distance myself from what she shared – it was so sad to hear about, it’s too much to try to recount for you. Suffice it to say, she was raised by her father so that she could be trafficked, sold to others to be used or shared with them. Suffice it to say, she was taken in horrible places (in the basement of and behind Catholic churches, surrounded by Santa Clauses?) and at terribly young ages (2? And up…). My question marks reflect where I probably winced and did not want to think or imagine or absorb more. This was why she said it was SO difficult to visit the Cathedral with our class – why Nayeli was a comforting companion to her that day, without Nayeli even knowing  why. She blinked a lot when she spoke, and even laughed and smiled a fair bit, self-consciously.  All I know is, we had to wrap up quickly and what felt a bit prematurely, to rejoin the rest of the large group. “Just tell Jude and Mary it was because of me,” she said, “they’ll understand.” And I understood her bond to the two of them that I’d seen throughout the week – they were large supports to her. But we didn’t get to pray for her or even respond/reflect back on what she had said. And when we sat down to lunch 20 minutes later, I had a bad headache. My brow felt furrowed in a way that it hadn’t in a long time. I felt the heavy weight of her story on my mind and heart. I needed someone to pray for me. I rubbed the spot between my eyebrows but the pain persisted. I had felt her pain and couldn’t shake it. Tricia, seated next to me, prayed for me, after I prayed for C. The headache lightened a bit, but remained through til the start of class. I took two Tylenol when we were starting back up, because it still hurt. At some point just before class, while we were waiting to regather, I got to say to C briefly, “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to pray together for you after you shared… I think I have a headache from it, your story was so intense” … and then gave her a hug. * As I reflect, I just think. I heard just a short version of her story briefly – and it gave me such a pronounced headache. What must it be like for C to have lived her life, endured no doubt unspeakable pain, and be alive still? But “Live” was what the heart-shaped rock she shared with us had written on it, beside a tall flower. She is choosing to live. “Worship heals us” she shared during her sharing… before she played a song for us from off her phone. Lord, heal this woman. Restore all that has been lost. Comfort and provide for her, I pray.

 

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