I spent a week on Skid Row

Student leader shares what service, ministry and living after living a week on Skid Row.

Photo+courtesy+of+Candace+Guereque

Photo courtesy of Candace Guereque

Candace Guereque, Writer

If we are being honest, Skid Row is intimidating. The tents and encampments lining each street have the ability to make anyone question what has brought people to live like this. The community that has been built is pretty much its own culture — it makes anyone who encounters it reflect on their own. And when you are not just passing through and actually get to meet someone living in this place, the stark reality of the statistics you so commonly hear suddenly turn into a real life story. It has the ability to shake anyone up.

It is a whole lot of uncomfortability and heaviness compared to what we are used to coming from Biola. Because of this, it makes it hard to visit.

5th & Towne

I am one of the ministry directors for the Fred Jordan Mission Ministry on campus that brings students to Skid Row each week. One of the most rewarding things I get to witness in being a part of this ministry is what draws people to do ministry like this, in an inwardly and outwardly challenging environment.

The Center for Cross Cultural Engagement provides an opportunity for students to stay there for a week to help with one of the mission’s biggest events of the year. I went last spring break and have returned each week ever since. For this trip, we had a whole new team of students and I was curious to know what drove these students to give up their Thanksgiving to be here.

This place is ironically a place of comfort to me as I have grown to know many of the staff members more deeply and develop relationships. My team and I spent three long days making mass amounts of turkey legs — from the washing to the basting, to seasoning, to putting in the oven and separating 2,000 of them into bins.

Hitting the streets

Most of the time Skid Row is pretty unpredictable and spread out. A group of us came across this man sitting on the sidewalk and we started talking to him about his life. Eventually, he shared with us that he lived out there because it has been tough ever since his wife died. He has battled alcoholism since she passed and has not been able to get healthy. We asked him about his beliefs, and shared that he loves God and talks to him all the time and recently found a church family down the block. He told us they were always so excited to see him and for once, he felt like he had a home again.

I could tell “home” had a loaded meaning. He went on to share that his wife was a strong spiritual leader in their relationship and ever since she left, he has felt so far from not only her, but also God.

I was thankful in that moment —  thankful God is constantly challenging me to grow in the midst of these conversations. He pushes me to get out of my bubble and break down these socially constructed stereotypes that can easily fester in my mind when you see homelessness from afar. It is easy to see the dirty streets and unfamiliar community built here and not want to approach it. Most students share with me that the most difficult part of visiting is having these conversations, because you never know what is going to come up and the hard stuff usually always does.

A common question that always comes up when we get to go out and have these conversations is, “So why are you here? What brought you here?” Though it sounds like an uncomfortable question, people on Skid Row actually respond very well to it. They are usually wondering the same thing themselves. In the moment they realize they do not have an answer, I join them in that pause and reflect.

Reality out of the bubble

Addiction is a harsh reality on Skid Row that everybody hears, but nobody wants to come close to. I heard a Ted Talk not too long ago by British journalist Johann Hari who spent years researching drug addiction and what he said pertaining to addiction never left me. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection.” This deep hunger for connection to community, something bigger and, I would say, God hits you hard the minute you turn the corner onto 5th and Towne.

“We see the cushy, suburban life that a lot of the world does not even have,” said Rawley Hughes, junior business major. “This gives us knowledge of how people live and that gives us compassion for them and a drive to help them however we can.” This is something priceless we cannot find in the walls of Biola.

Something poverty cannot take away

I loved growing with the team in the short amount of time we were there and reflecting on what thankfulness really means being outside our normal reality.

“I’m most thankful for the relationships that we are able to have,” said Sophia Han, senior communications major. “One thing that people who live here on skid row have is relationships with one another and community and that’s something that poverty can’t take away.”

It is a true treasure encountering places in the world like this — as heavy as they can be — because they remind us of the great grace of God. When you genuinely look past the dirt covered skin, tattered clothing and the layers of uncomfortability, you become enamored by the real, raw and complex story that comes alongside the person in it. You are able to see their true identity as you lean into the uncomfortableness and take the time to listen. There is so much more than what is seen through the stereotypes and statistics we tend to accept. In these spaces I am most thankful and most aware of what the truest, rawest blessings of God really are.

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