Monday, July 15, 2013

From Fear to Love: A Week in the Inner-City

"Alright, now we are going to head out and prayer walk around the Tenderloin" said Sean Brakey, the mission and intern director for San Francisco City Impact, the non-profit organization that I took 17 people from Door Creek Church to last week, 14 of them high school students.

"What is a prayer walk?" one student asked me.
"We are going to go walking around this neighborhood?" another asked.

We had just flown in from Wisconsin a few hours earlier and had taken a bus into the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, a neighborhood known for its poverty, its drugs, its danger. This was in the inner city of San Francisco and we were about to walk around it and just start praying for buildings and people. Our group began walking around with our intern, Zach O and we stopped first at City Impact's Rescue Mission and huddled around it to get the backstory and to begin praying for the Lord to move throughout that place in the coming week. As we prayed (a holy huddle if there ever was one) people from the streets would come up and stare at us, or ask us questions. There was lots of yelling all around us, police sirens running down Jones Street nearby, and a heartbreaking number of people simply living on the street, some asleep and some laying against a building and staring straight off into the distance.

It was uncomfortable. For the students. For my leaders. For me.
I was afraid. What had I gotten these kids into? What were we doing here? Why didn't we just go do some beach evangelism in Florida?

We fear what we don't know. And I was afraid of the people who lived in the Tenderloin. As we walked around the streets I was tense and nervous, fearful of who might approach us and what awkward conversation we might get into.
How long were we going to be here again?

Monday night rolled into Tuesday and our week began in earnest. We began each day with worship through song and teaching, challenged to give our lives to the "kingdom that will pass, or the kingdom that will last" and then sent out into the Tenderloin to love and serve the people. The students would serve at the school, the rescue mission, the thrift shop, and a variety of other ways to befriend the homeless and the people who made their lives in the Tenderloin.

Tuesday night we were sent out for two hours with a bag of chips to befriend people who were living on the streets. I was with about 10 of our students and I was fearful again. This is crazy. I am a white kid from Wisconsin (by way of the South) and I am going to go and hand out chips and try and talk with people in the Tenderloin? Wouldn't they just laugh at me? What could we possibly talk about?

Fear. Fear. Fear. Me. Me. Me.

It was throughout handing out dozens of chips and getting into dozens of conversations with the people of the Tenderloin (and watching high school students do it as well) that God began to convict me of my fear and my self-centerdness and to grow my heart with love for the people of the Tenderloin.

I spent every afternoon delivering meals and getting into conversations with residents in the apartment communities in the Tenderloin. We would knock on a door, introduce ourselves, make conversation, hand out food, and pray with people if they wanted.

I met Ron and Tony and Cindy and Laquisha and Matt and Roger and Nathan and dozens more people. Every door had a story. And for many of these people this might be the only time they talk with someone all week long. It was a beautiful experience. We were able to share the gospel and pray with and for people door after door.

Of course you are nervous before you knock on a door, who knows who may open the door (and what they might or might not be wearing), but that gives way quickly to a passion to simply talk with people and hear their story, to know them and to show them that we do actually care and that God cares a whole lot more for them.

Ron was 83 years old. He looked a lot younger. We knocked on his door and he opened it holding is his little dog Coco. Ron began talking with me and two students, Sean and James about his life and all the brokenness he had seen over the last 83 years. I asked me if had ever been married and he said he had once, right at the end of Korean War. He married a woman from the Philippines, but she was unable to return to the United States with him. It was in 1953 that Ron returned to the United States. I followed up by asking if he had ever gotten married again, and there was a short pause on his end (which was a miracle since he talked a mile a minute!), and a long look down, as if in that moment he was thinking over all that could have been over the past 60 years.

He finally looked up, his eyes watery and simply replied "No. I never got married again."

We were able to pray for Ron and talk with him about Jesus Christ. He was a believer in "something bigger than us", but not in any "orthodox religion", and said with all the pain and brokenness he had seen over the past 70 years he wondered how it could all happen.

"Ron, do you know that there was One who was broken for us?" I asked him.
"What do you mean" he responded.
"Jesus, God himself, was broken for us, that he took all the sin of this world on himself for us."
"Well, I don't know about that."
"I do," I answered.
"Ron, you have lived a long life and seen way more than I have seen, way more than I will probably ever see, but I want you to see this--that God loves you, God knows you, and God longs for you to know Him, and that that is the truest reality in the world."

Ron stood there staring at me.

I pushed through the silence and asked him if I could pray for him. I prayed for Ron and told him about City Impact and how he could get connected to the church to pursue this more. He was very grateful and happy that we simply stopped to talk with him and hear his story. I was grateful too.

I could tell you a dozen more stories like this of people that we met and talked with and prayed with. As the week closed out we went out on the streets again Thursday night again to hand out chips and pray with people. This time there was no fear, only love. Every block was covered with people we would have a chance to talk with, to laugh with, to cry with, to be human with. It was a joy to see my students out in front handing out chips and starting up conversations. They killed it. God was growing them right before my eyes. Pushed out of their comfort zones into the world, but equipped with the greatest message of all--the gospel. And the gospel is enough.

Our last day in San Francisco was a day off and so we all got into a bus and toured around San Francisco and saw all the tourist sites. We saw the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, the famous Piers, and all the beautiful houses. The final stop on the tour was passing through the Tenderloin.

Our tour guide called out over the microphone, "And we are coming up a district in San Francisco known as the Tenderloin." And when I heard the word "Tenderloin" my heart beat a little faster--not from fear, but from love. I loved this area. I loved these people. Every single person walking around was made in the image of God. So many people of the Tenderloin have been through hell, and yet I heard more "God Bless You's" this week then I ever heard in my life. They were so thankful to talk with us, to see us, and to show us their neighborhood, their home. They are a broken and yet a deeply beautiful people. No different from you and me.

People aren't projects to convert, they are human beings to love. I want everyone to know about Jesus, but here is the truth.
I can't save anyone, but Jesus can. I can't truly deliver anyone, but Jesus can.

I can't, but Jesus can. And Jesus will.

It's His City. It's His Tenderloin. And through City Impact and other Christians in the area the kingdom of God is being seen on the streets of the Tenderloin. The church is being the church--loving in word and deed, pursuing justice and calling people to repentance in and through Christ. Beautiful.

We all stand equal before God. We all struggle in our own ways. We have all sinned. You may visibly see the effects of sin more somewhere like the Tenderloin or Skid Row, but sin and brokenness is a part of the city of Madison, Wisconsin as well. It may look different, but the solution is the same--for the church to BE THE CHURCH and proclaim the rule and reign of Jesus over all things.

It's not about me. It's not about you. It's about Him.

Do you need to go and work with City Impact in the Tenderloin? Maybe, but maybe not. I know what I (and you need to do)--we need to get in the fight, to love our cities and ALL the people in them with the message of the Jesus.

And sometimes love is as simple and profound as going to someone, delivering and sharing a meal with them, and hearing their story.

Hmm...that sounds like what someone else I know spent his whole life doing.


  1. RD, Your story was very touching. It brought me to tears. If only we would always remember it is not about me, but it is about Him the world would be a much better place. Thanks.