In the heart of Skid Row
by Matt Jensen –
On a Saturday afternoon this past autumn, the Torrance Band, along with corps members and friends, took their ministry to Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. They were inspired to do this by the efforts of Matt Jensen, a soldier of the corps, who for several months has been sharing Christ’s love with those on the streets of Skid Row. He talks with and listens to people whom many others pass by. Here Matt shares how the combined band, soldiers and friends brought some of God’s light to this dark scene.
Meet Joe: The voice of the suffering
The strong smell of urine and vomit assaulted me, as I brushed my hand over the cold cement that he called his home and struggled to identify with this man’s pain. He continued contemplatively in his alcohol-drenched breath, “See, brother, no one really cares about us. People come in and out with their clothes and food, drop ‘em off to us to make themselves feel better and then drive away. But we’re still here, and I’m still suckin’ on this crack pipe. It’s hopeless, man. Why are you here?”
Comments like Joe’s have a familiar ring to them, as my fiancé, Vanessa, and I follow God’s leading every Saturday to minister to those on the streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. When I first started hanging out on the streets, the drug use, violence, and utter depression wreaked havoc upon my heart. I’d war with God in my prayers and ask him why he’d direct me to such an overwhelmingly dark place, where multitudes are suffering in hopelessness—where a harvest is dying before it’s collected because the workers “have better things to do.” But we were still faithful, despite our frustration and inadequacies, and kept going out, sitting and talking with those there about how highly they’re favored and loved by the God who created them. And in the process, we’ve seen hearts softened, hope restored, and lives changed.
The strength of simple love
Over time, I’ve been able to see more clearly why it is that God wants Vanessa and me on those streets. I see it in the grown man’s tears as he cries on our shoulder and asks us for prayer. I see it in the paranoid drug dealer’s eyes as they greet our familiar faces with trust. I see it in the genuine smiles when someone finally realizes that Jesus hasn’t forgotten about them and still loves them very much. I see it when someone we haven’t seen in a while comes out to tell us they took our advice and checked into a local program. The burden of their pain that I once wore, while raising questions to God continually, is now replaced with the trust and knowledge that he wants us out there to do great things through simple acts of love. In love we really do conquer, even upon the streets of Skid Row, even amidst hearts that many in our society have given up on. We march out weekly in love because we see Jesus walking among the street dwellers and raising the battle flag of Blood and Fire, beckoning us to “love these in my name.”
After many battles won and lost in the hearts of the homeless on Skid Row, I got the idea to give them a day of peace—a small break from the daily activity of pain and misery. We’d have to shut down the busiest street on Skid Row, I thought, and take it for Jesus in a mighty way if even for just a few hours. I talked with Kevin Larsson, who directs the Torrance corps band, and Major Ivan Wild, the Torrance corps officer, and received a quick response—“We’re in.” Vanessa and I invited youth groups from other churches to hop on board because we both agreed that the more Christians we got out there to love people, the better. And after we completed an inch-thick stack of paperwork to receive city permits, we got the green light for an open air on Skid Row.
The Saturday flew by like a breeze. The whole Torrance corps band played beautifully for those few hours, broken up three times for brief messages by Captain Bill Finley, Los Angeles Lighthouse corps officer, and Vanessa and myself. Volunteers manned two barbecues—cooking more than 800 hot dogs—distributed hundreds of bottles of water and passed out Bibles. The day was a success for our Lord! Vanessa and I looked on dumbfounded as for that brief time there were no fights on the street, there were no arguments, no drug deals; on the contrary, we saw those who hours ago were depressed at their current state now dancing to the music and then listening attentively to our messages of hope in Jesus Christ. Those who not too long ago were lying in the gutter feeling forgotten, were now chomping on hot dogs and feeling pretty good, knowing that we did all of this for them.
Weeks later, we still get homeless coming up to us and thanking us. They still remember, because Christ moved through us to love those on Skid Row.
The current state
Skid Row daily echoes the cries of those hearts that die upon that cold cement. Bleeding through the dark cracks are the tears of men and women who once had a good life, before the demon of addiction latched onto their will. Women are still raped, young kids are still beaten, dealers are still slinging death in little clear packets of white crystals, and needles stained with the hopes of what men could have become are still found in dark corners. But because we know Jesus Christ and the power of his promise of a new life with him, even in the vilest alcohol-tainted breath begs a soul waiting to be awakened into the loving embrace of our Father.
There is still pain, but there is hope because of Jesus Christ. There are still broken lives, but we worship a God who mends even the most shattered. There are still those forgotten and neglected in our society, but there is The Salvation Army! We, as The Salvation Army, fight on in the blood of Jesus Christ and with the fire of the Holy Spirit ablaze in our hearts! We fight on under the banner of Christ our Lord; and through him we are victorious, in the heart of Skid Row!