“Seminary did not prepare me for this,” said Professor Michael Mata in a guest lecture about his first reaction to practicing urban ministry in Los Angeles.
During mid-semester break, 15 students, including me, had the opportunity to spend one week learning about the city and the people of Los Angeles as a part of the course MINC 487: Exegeting the City, taught by Professor Gregg Moder, D.Min., alongside guest speakers, including Mata.
The class also partnered with the Dream Center (DC), a nonprofit church organization founded in 1994 that fulfills the needs of over 80,000 individuals and families each month through outreach programs.
We served alongside some of DC’s ministries such as the clothing ministry Helping Hands, foster care intervention, the children’s ministry KIDS Zone and Skid Row outreach. DC also houses over 700 residents enrolled in various recovery programs year round.
My first experience on Skid Row, one of largest areas of homelessness and poverty in the nation, had me echoing a similar sentiment to Mata’s: I was not prepared for this.
I didn’t know what to do or say to fix people’s situations. I couldn’t will the problems away or transform someone’s life with a wave of a wand. And so, helplessness invaded my heart.But soon, as the experience continued, hope began to push out the helplessness.
As fellow classmate junior psychology major Christina Saad said, “We are all the same.”
There’s something so powerful about the inherent dignity God places in us, something that circumstance or the enemy can’t strip away. It is in this God that we trust.
The more I walked the Los Angeles streets, the more it profoundly hit me. From the very architecture of the city—the sidewalks, the competing stores, the buildings, the communities—to the graffiti left by gangs, we’re all screaming to be noticed.
We all want to be acknowledged because we were created with such adoration by our God. Our desire to be known is inherent; it’s in us, and it’s powerfully palpable in our cities.
Classmate junior psychology major Corin Thornburg said, “I was trying to change the circumstances around me. But I think God was using the external circumstances to change me.”
I am forever wrecked by this trip—wrecked because I know I can never forget what I witnessed on Skid Row. There is a very real system of oppression that is deeply embedded in society that I can’t repair, and that I even contribute to sometimes.
But more than that, I am wrecked by God’s unfathomable grace. He chose us, continues to choose us and imparts in us dignity worthy to be His children. He gives us hope that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
As Walter Brueggemann wrote in “Prophetic Imagination,” we “must always learn that our hope is never generated among us but always given to us. And whenever it is given we are amazed.”