Lying at the bottom of one of the wealthiest financial districts in the world (corporate names on the top of every skyscraper), is skid row, home to thousands of homeless people. Los Angeles has been revitalizing the ninety year old downtown area for the past decade, but there has been accelerated gentrification in the last year. The downtown skid row hotels, built in the 1920s, function as SROs - tenement housing where the poor can rent a room for $600 a month or until their welfare check runs out. These hotels are being refurbished into lofts - trendy, upscale pads that rent for $2000. As the older hotels are remodeled for a new clientele, the poor are being forced out into the streets because there is less and less affordable housing available. Even worse, many of those being evicted are families with small children. It is not uncommon to see a single mother with four or five children seeking shelter in a mission.
In the midst of this chaos is a church, the only church on skid row. Central City Community Church has faithfully ministered to a homeless population for nearly twenty years. Their vision is to minister holistically and incarnationally to people whose homes are the streets and hotels of the inner-city. They do this through an after-school program for children, recovery programs for adults, bible studies, social services and Sunday morning worship. But the most surprising (and possibly life-giving) activity they do is Wednesday evening karaoke.
As the four of us walked into the church there was a spirit rarely found in the most lavish of suburban sanctuaries. In place of fear, there was peace; violence was replaced by safety; love trumped hatred. Here was a church that practiced the essence of Jesus' Good News: a community that shared their material goods (what little they had), bore one another's burdens, rejoiced together, cried together, prayed together, studied together, laughed together, danced together and sang together. Karaoke night became an evening where 200+ homeless people could take shelter, have a cup of coffee, drop their guard and forget that they were the forgotten.
That warehouse was transformed into a cathedral. Jesus was dining with the tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes. I rubbed shoulders with single mothers, young children, old men, addicts, dealers, prostitutes (male and female), AIDS victims and more. These people were dancing, celebrating and praising the God who sustained them on a daily basis. The people I met were beyond wonderful: Linda, who when asked how she was doing would answer, "I'm too blessed to be stressed;" Tony, a former addict and club owner who donates the sound system for karaoke night; James, a homeless man who does an amazing rendition of James Brown's classic, "I Feel Good;" and Tyrese, Tyrell and their mother singing, "The Old Rugged Cross."
I left wanting more. I walked away knowing that they had something I needed. I disarmed the alarm and slid into the driver's seat of my Honda CRV with a strong desire to return and share this time with these special people again. They made my spirit soar. This must be some of the emotion Paul had when he told the Philippians, "I love you and long for you" (Phil 1:8, NLT). These were some of the most beautiful people I have ever met.
And I miss you when you're not around I'm getting ready to leave the ground
Oh - you - look - so beautiful tonight In the city, of blinding lights
The more you know, the less you feel Some pray for, others steal Blessings not just for the ones who kneel - luckily
(Bono wrote this lyric a month after 9/11/2001. The concert was nearly canceled following the terrorist attacks. As he walked out on stage, he witnessed for himself the grief and the tears of the gathered New Yorkers and simply said, "Oh, you look so beautiful tonight....")