2 Lessons (and Stories) from Living on Skid Row
Sean McDowell, Ph.D.
This past week I had the opportunity of co-leading a trip of 30+ high school students to stay at the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row for three days. The students served meals in the kitchen, played Bingo with Mission residents, cleaned, played with children, served cold water to people living in the streets, shared meals with strangers, and much more. The trip was life changing for me, the students, and we hope maybe even some of the people at the URM.
So much could be said from a trip of this kind. There are several people and stories I will never forget. In fact, my family is going to make it a priority to regularly visit our new friends at the URM.
Here are two life lessons (and stories) that I will never forget:
First, we walked into downtown L.A. and met an older man who formerly served in the U.S. government but now lives on the streets and begs for a living. While he could get government aid, he feels that they abandoned him at his point of most need, so he refuses their aid. Instead, he gets about $8-10 per day.
What amazed me most, though, was that during our ten-minute conversation with him three people put money in his jar. People in expensive suits simply walked by as if he weren’t even there. But the three people who helped were others who looked like they were struggling day-by-day just as he was. In other words, the people who helped him the most were the people who seemingly had the least. One man even handed my son $.07 to put in the man’s jar and said, “I hope it helps at least some. Its all I have.”
I was reminded of the story Jesus told about the widow who gave two small copper coins after the rich people put in large sums of money. Jesus praised her for giving out of her poverty whereas the rich people gave out of their abundance. (Mark 12:43-44).
Pastor Dan Anderson, who hosted us on our trip, personally went and got him some groceries. Here are some questions to consider from this story (that I have been asking myself):
Do you have assumptions about people begging in the streets? Are they accurate? Do you ever stop to say hello and offer money or even food? Do you give out of your abundance or your poverty?
Second, one of my highlights was having a 90-minute conversation with one of the senior residents at the URM. Although this man has no formal education, he is self-educated and asks great questions. He spends considerable time watching educational shows and is familiar with writers such as Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan. He was reading The Language of God by Francis Collins and had underlined, dog-eared, and basically devoured the content of the book. I gave him a copy of my book Is God Just a Human Invention? and by the next morning he was already reading it in depth as well. Impressive!
Pastor Dan had asked me to simply have a “public” conversation with him that the students could observe. We discussed the relationship between science and faith, the historical Jesus, and epistemological questions such as the nature of knowledge. I absolutely loved it and I think he did too! Some of the students shared that it was their highlight of the trip. I was impressed at both his humility (to share his questions and struggles so openly) and also his desire for truth.
It was a big lesson for the students to realize that even though many people at the Union Rescue Mission are simply trying to find their next meal, restore broken relationships, and learn how to function in society, deep down inside people yearn for truth. Even on Skid Row, Christians need to be ready with an answer for those who ask (1 Peter 3:15).
As I blogged earlier this week, there is a powerful intersection between social justice and apologetics.
One of the big takeaways for me from the trip is that everyone can make a difference. That’s right, everyone. Some people are called to sacrifice lucrative careers and work full time in the inner city. Some people adopt kids who need homes. Some financially support the URM (even small amounts help). Some take trips to serve at the URM. Some take the time to help homeless people in their own communities by meeting both their relational and financial needs. But we are all called to sacrifice in some fashion.
I can honestly say that I will never be the same after visiting Skid Row with the Union Rescue Mission. And I can’t wait to go back.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.