I spent last year living in Los Angeles, California, more specifically in Studio City, nestled in the valley, right down the road from CBS Radford Studios, a mile from Universal City and Harry Potter World and a metro stop from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I worshipped at a church where episodes of The Office, Brooklyn 99 and 7th Heaven were filmed. Los Angeles is one of the premier large cities of the U.S and the entertainment capital of the world. Los Angeles also holds the dubious honor of being the homeless capital of the United States.
Every place of glitz and glam in Los Angeles has a shadow cast over it by the disparity that surrounds it. The walk of fame has become grimy and dirty, one is unable to walk down the street without being asked for money, and the subway trains are filled with homeless people looking for a place to sleep. Los Angeles is a city of duality where affluence and abject poverty sit side by side. The state of matters is getting worse in LA as families that can actually afford homes are displaced by the affluence moving into their neighborhoods. As rent prices hike, low income families are forced to move out, or in some cases, become homeless. Rent prices are easily three to four times greater than in the mid-west, the wait list for section 8 vouchers is years long and even if one receives a section 8 voucher, there’s a 2.7 percent vacancy rate. It’s near impossible to find an apartment to live in, especially with a section 8 voucher.
While I lived in LA, I worked at the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, which reflected LA’s duality but in a much better way. The NHIFP is a non-profit 501c3 which distributes emergency bags of food in the North Hollywood area twice weekly. Working side by side, rich, homeless, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, black, Hispanic, white, gay, straight, transgendered, donors, pantry clients, government officials and non-profit workers together, as equals, supply food to those who need it. Jerry, the 90 year old Jewish WWII vet, works with Kiki, a Cubano homeless man while working with a student from the Christian private school just down the street. The diversity and dichotomy of Los Angeles comes together to form what is, to me, the body of Christ right at the back door of the pantry. Its feet move, its hands give, its mouth speaks, its heart feels, and its members, all different, hold each other in dignity and respect, And boy does it move, serving around 1,200 households a month, providing fresh fruit, hosting two to three social benefit programs and connecting the most needy to resources, the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry provides much needed relief in an under-served area.
The pantry director, Luis Oliart, is a full embodiment of this duality. A volunteer director, Luis makes his money by being a career musician. On more than one occasion I went arounds town meeting with the councilman on a Monday morning and then got drinks and watched his rock show in a bar that same Monday night. Luis, the volunteer-director, rock star, award winning community activist that he is, took his role as a boss and as a mentor very seriously. I heard the phrase “If there’s one thing I want you to learn from this experience…” so many times that if these lessons had monetary value, I would be able to pay for a studio apartment in Los Angeles. Luis would tell me “The goal of the pantry is to create a community of caring” or “The goal of the pantry is to have a Muslim kid, a Christian kid and a Jewish kid all serving bags to clients together, not focused on their differences, but focused on helping somebody else” and often he’d say “The goal of the pantry is to run itself out of business. We want to be so efficient at helping people that they no longer need to come to us for food”. Every time Luis told me one of these goals of the pantry, what I heard in my head was “The goal of the pantry is transformation”.
“The goal of the pantry is to transform our community from one that ignores and neglects the poor and homeless into a community that cares about the poor and homeless.”
“The goal of the pantry is to transform a mindset that difference is bad into a mindset that difference is to be celebrated and used to help others”.
“The goal of the pantry is to transform kids, homeless, poor, men, women, community members, into activists and volunteers empowered to make a difference”.
“The goal of the pantry is to transform La from a city of massive poverty and food insecurity into a city where all have enough and the food pantry is no longer necessary”.
While transformation on this scale hasn’t occurred yet, transformation happens daily at the pantry. The pantry offers fresh fruit, picked from local backyards through a non-profit called food-forward, they invite social benefit programs to the pantry to directly help clients and hopefully direct them on a path that leads them to a better place, the pantry has a harden tended to by local volunteers and adults with mental disabilities and the garden’s produce is then distributed in the bags back to the clients. The pantry transforms people into community, bad situations into manageable ones, unused land into life-sustaining food and it transforms every person that interacts with it. My work at the food pantry included reviewing grant proposals, preparing grant reports, keeping partnerships with services like food stamps, Medicare/Medicaid and the VA, I lead the homeless census count for our neighborhoods of LA, and I met with congressmen and councilpersons to discuss homelessness laws and policy. I integrated online food ordering through the LA regional foodbank, I worked with the Alliance for Community Transit – Los Angeles fighting for affordable housing and quality jobs, knocking on doors to gather signatures for a ballot initiative and crafting the policy in that initiative, but mostly I worked with our homeless clients. I would help our clients navigate homeless services, connect them to mental health services, shelters, food pantries, clothing providers, help clients apply for general relief and help them in any way that I could. I would be elated when we found housing for a client and have my heart crushed when a section 8 voucher expired and it was back to step 1, a several year wait for another voucher. In my work I knew there was transformation happening. Transformation for my clients, transformation of a broken system and transformation of myself
Facundo Vasquez, or Kiki, is a long time pantry volunteer and client. Luis estimates that Kiki volunteered over 2,000 service hours to the pantry. Kiki is loyally and dutifully at the Pantry every Monday and Friday picking up food, delivering food and distributing bags for the Pantry. Kiki lives out of his car, with only a few clothes and no job. Kiki sleeps in that same car in a park, wakes up at 4 or 5 AM to leave before anyone else gets there to start his day. Kiki has been declared unable to work due to his schizophrenia and with little income, Kiki couldn’t afford the parts his car needed to pass e-check, which he needed to pass to get a registration for his license and since he had no registration a police officer would follow him and ticket him for expired tags. Kiki couldn’t pay the fines for an expired registration, but still needed his car to live and function in his life, leaving him with over a thousand dollars of compounded registration fees. Kiki went to homeless court, which told him his fines would disappear if he did community service hours, but received no indication if his fees had been terminated or not after serving those hours. The homeless court program was disbanded, Kiki asked around as to what was happening and received no answers, leading him to go to Luis and say “They won’t listen to me. I’m just a crazy homeless Cuban man to them”.
So Kiki and I went to the court house, together. I in a suit and tie, Kiki in baggy jeans and a cut off tee. He received a court date and when we got back to the car Kiki told me “I can’t go back to jail. If I go back I will get addicted to drugs again and I would rather kill myself”.
Kiki wasn’t always a stellar pantry volunteer. Kiki struggled with a drug addiction, had un-medicated schizophrenia with no counseling and would come to the pantry during a psychotic break and cause a disturbance at the pantry, which is located right next to a pre-school. When Kiki would come to the pantry like this, Luis would do a remarkable thing. Luis would treat Kiki with, but compassionate hand. He would tell him that if he continued to act that way, that the cops would be involved, or they could go somewhere, grab a bite to eat and calm down. Luis would bring peace to the situation by breaking bread.
For Kiki, who had come so far, going to jail represented a reversion back to where he was before in line. Kiki had served time for murder, but now spends time serving others. His life has transformed to where it is now through ministry like the food pantry, treating Kiki as an equal, empowering him and allowing him to show his worth.
After hours of phone calls, going back to the court house, passing papers to dozens of people, we still had no answer on the day of his court date. We went to the court house expecting the worst, only to be handed a paper saying that Kiki’s community service was recognized and all his fines lifted. This time when we got to the car Kiki said “I feel so much better. I feel like I want to live again”.
In Los Angeles I participated in transformative ministry which made me appreciate the ministries that have transformed me. As a kid, I went to a church camp where I learned that I am deeply loved and became confident in who I am. I went on mission trips which empowered me to act on the compassion I feel in my heart and my whole life this church, full of people not like me, has cared for me, inspiring me to care for people not like myself through the church, for the rest of my life.
In our Matthew text, Christ says that whenever we have helped the poor, the broken, the hungry, the tired, the oppressed or the down trodden, that we have helped Christ himself. Christ’s words claim a manifestation of God in the people surrounding us. God calls us to acknowledge her presence among what society would call “the least of these”. John writes that “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”. Am I not like my fellow neighbor? Do we not both swell with pride when our sports teams win, laugh at a joke, long to love and be loved and grieve when we feel loss? Ministries of transformation change all of their participants. John has this expectation that God will reveal God’s self when God is among us and like John, I often look for God or wait for Christ to come to me. Part of my transformation has been to stop looking for God and to realize that I’ve been staring at God all along. Transforming my view of both the familiar and the stranger into a view of a representation of God on earth, I can now ask “What can God and I do to help each other out today? How do we walk through life together?”
As I finish speaking, I finish with thanks to you FCC Stow. Thanks for including me in your ministries of transformation, thanks for helping me see God. I finish asking, what can you and God do to help each other out today?
Now seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.