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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Concrete Memories

Several weeks ago, my aunt and uncle were in town to visit the family. Along with my mom and dad, they came and "kidnapped" me one Sunday afternoon to give me the Brown Family Historical Tour of Nashville, Tennessee. I know, right? I so enjoyed it, though. It was so fun to pass by their grade schools, the Dairy King, schoolmates' houses, and so much more. I even got to see the hill where my dad's bike chain broke while he was delivering newspapers on his paper route. And, the grove of trees where he went flying off his bike.

We went to visit the house in southeast Nash that my dad and uncle grew up in, and the gentleman that now owns the place was outside working on the lawn. The five of us piled out of my uncle's truck to ask the guy if we could look around the backyard of the house. It's the south, so no one's a stranger.

Of course, he said yes. We walked to the side door of the house to find the concrete stoop my dad and Grandpa laid. My cousin Tyler, brother Ben, and I had all placed our handprints in the wet cement back in 1986. Tyler was six, I was five, and Ben was three. Here's the picture:

I've bumped up the contrast so you can see it a little better. Tyler's hand is on the left, and that's a "T" above his hand. Mine is in the middle with an "MA" on top, and Ben's is on the right with a "B." I can remember stretching out my hand really wide, and enjoying smashing it into the wet concrete. Ben, on the other hand, threw a fit because he didn't want to put his hand in the concrete. I remember that mom made him. So he did, and he squeezed his fingers together tightly so they were all in a line. That's why his handprint looks more like a blob.

This image is the original date: AD 86. I guess my dad or Grandpa were trying to be funny, but that's not unusual.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

City of Angels

I brought a lot back from my trip to Skid Row. One thing is the adenovirus. I was already sick going into the trip, and evidently my crippled immune system couldn't handle the funk. I went to the doctor on Thursday, and after my swine flu test came back negative, the doc diagnosed me with the adenovirus. It's basically an infection of the respiratory system, and it manifests itself in different forms, including pink eye. So, there you go. Needless to say, I've been quarantined from all regularly scheduled activities since late last week. Dr. Mom has been taking good care of me though, and I'm going to work tomorrow, bloodshot eyes and all.

It's been interesting living the aftermath of my trip. The world clearly turned without me while I was gone, and this past Monday, I found myself feeling helpless. Granted, I didn't feel well anyway, and that may have contributed to some of my blood, sweat and tears, but still... The work in front of me seemed so meaningless (it actually is meaningless), yet it is still my responsibility. My goal is to keep the beginning of my new week in perspective.

I learned enough lessons for a lifetime in a mere week's time. Here is only a little of what impacted me permanently:

--My definition of success is altered. Before the trip, I would've said that a homeless/addicted person should get help, get clean, get a home, get a job, get a car, get a family, and live the american dream. But I'm not so sure that's the answer anymore. I spent time with the men that live at Set Free Church, and listened to their stories of abuse, addiction and homelessness. All of them are now clean, and some work odd jobs here and there, but they all live in community in bunks in the garage bay of Set Free. They are the "disciples" of the church and they are in full-time ministry to the people living on the streets of Skid Row. Their lives don't fit into the prettiness of the "American Dream," but they're loving God and serving others. They know a return to their previous cultures would mean an extreme amount of temptation. So they choose otherwise. Now that, is respectable and a wise way for living. I can learn from this.

I was unloading some of this on Emily the other day, and she sent me this quote by Booker T. Washington: "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed."

--There is a homeless lady named Joanna that is a faithful attender of Set Free Church. Joanna loves Jesus, but she also loves the bottle. I don't know her full story, but I know she's been an alcoholic for many years, and she's been drunk each day I've seen her. On the morning of our outreach fair, we pulled up and Joanna was out in front of the church on her hands and knees, scrubbing the sidewalk with a brush and bleach. This is the same sidewalk that I've seen people urinate and defecate upon. Because of her love for the Lord and for the church, she felt it was her responsibility to humble herself and make the sidewalk presentable for the fair. I don't know if Joanna will ever conquer her addiction, but I do believe that she is my sister in Christ and that I will see her healed in Heaven one day. She's gonna see me healed of my "pretty sins" too.

--At the end of the trip, Brother Mark, a man living at Set Free that I respect immensely, came up to me and told me that he had been watching me all week, and that he was proud of the mercy and compassion that I was able to show these men and women. Tears came to my eyes, and I was so humbled that I barely could mumble a "thank you" to him. Truth is, I'm not a merciful or compassionate person. On my spiritual gifts tests in the past, I've always rated the lowest in those areas. But I found it so easy to love on these people while I was there. On the plane ride home, I asked myself why it is so hard to love on co-workers, some friends, some family, or others that pass by me on a daily basis? I'm making an effort to change this, to lengthen my short fuse, and to genuinely start to love those that are sometimes unlovable. Christ did it for me....does it for me....will do it for me.

--During my nine days in California, I learned what a true disciple of Christ looks like. I watched Robert paint a homeless lady's nails at the outreach fair on Saturday because there was no one else around to do it. Ivan gave away one of his own shirts to a homeless man in need of a shirt for a job interview one afternoon. Even though beds are available at Set Free, Brother James sleeps on the dirty concrete floor of the sanctuary because he says "it puts him at the feet of God." I watched as Ernie stopped and prayed over a homeless man taken with seizures on the streets. Thomas gave a homeless man food out of his own pantry. Brother Mark is so patient with people each morning when he's leading Proverbs, and doesn't rush them as they read or expound on what they're learning.

These men live in deplorable conditions, but I never heard a single complaint about the heat or the filth. Instead, I heard praises for their many blessings. These men know the Word inside and out. They have eternal perspective, and know that living for Christ is serious business...it's a matter of life or death. These men are a brotherhood, and they watch out for each other and protect each other. They say I love you, and they really mean it. They took me into their home, welcomed me, and blessed me far more than I could ever bless them.

I won't lie...I was not ready to come home. Sure, I was sick, and out of clean clothing, and I missed my family and friends...but I didn't want to come back for fear that I will fall back into my comfy rut. Please don't let me, okay?

I'm working on getting a web album of pictures together. Stay tuned...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Goodnight, Hollywood Boulevard

I'm flying home tomorrow evening, but I have one more Skid Row experience left: a Sunday morning church service with baptism. The baptismal is a oval-shaped, aluminum tub that is propped up on some milk crates. I know it's going to be a very special time tomorrow morning.

I am so very sad to leave. So, so sad. This past week has impacted my life permanently, and I can't wait to see how it's going to change my ways and my perception. I have so much more to tell you, but need some time to process. I'll catch up with you at some point next week.

Thank you so much for going on this journey with me. Your support means more than you know.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

When the Lights Go Down in the City

I have only a short update for you this evening, as I am leaving with the group in a few minutes to go to a LA Dodgers game. So excited for a hot dog and some MLB!

--We set out on the streets today to pass out fliers advertising the street fair we're hosting on Saturday. We'll close San Julian from 6th to 7th Avenue, and set-up free food vendors, clothing booths, a stage for live music and other entertainment, games, etc. I'm so excited about the opportunity to tell a lot of people about Jesus!

--The bulk of our time today was spent out on the streets and in Gladys Park. I met one man named Waterhouse (I know, right?), and as he rolled himself a fat doobie, he told me that he was a raggae drummer. I invited him out to come perform for us at the fair. I met another man named Twin. He looked like a gang-banger, but he was a poet, and an intellectual. He's also going to perform for us at the street fair. I didn't get to play chess today, as the guy with the chess set wasn't going to be at GP until later in the day. But I did get to talk with one of the chess players, a very nice guy named Bob. And I got to see a street-ball game, and was totally impressed.

--I found out today that Set Free Church attendance climbs monumentally the last week or so of the month. Why? The government checks have run out, and the money to buy drugs is gone. So, I hear that they come in droves and that the place becomes standing room only. Interesting how people turn to God when the "pleasures" of this world fail to provide for them.

--I didn't see Carla today. She was MIA. The more we've thought about it, the more we think that she might be demon-possessed. Or, maybe schizophrenic or MPD. Either way, it's evident that there's spiritual warfare going on inside her.

--We've been a little tickled this week at all of the "amens" and "brother/sister" and affirmations that are so freely admitted. And now we've found ourselves picking up on these words and phrases. Watch out BBC...Eric Fallati won't be the only one hollerin' on Sunday morning!

--I love getting to spend time with these men and women. The longer we are there, the more they are opening up to us. I'm hearing stories of painful childhoods, abuse, bad parenting, and so many other horrible things. No wonder they became so addicted to the things of this world. But I'm also hearing many stories of redemption and transformation. There are naysayers that believe that addicts are incorrigible. And while not everyone succeeds in breaking free of addiction, there are many that do. To see their passion is so inspiring.

More to come. Amen!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hollywood Babylon

With all that I experienced today, it might as well have been the length of an entire week. Today was a day of firsts. Today was a day full of burden. Today was a day of hope. Here are the highlights (and some of the lowlights, too)...

--At the beginning of 10:30 a.m. Bible study, I was able to lead the church on a raucous rendition of the "fruit of the spirit" song. Homeless men and women doing the banana? Priceless.

--I said "good morning" to Carla, and she called me a liar and some other words I will censor. I won't lie...it hurt deeply. Gotta keep reminding myself that I just need to keep showing her love.

--Met a man named Moses. He was incredibly filthy, barefoot, and mentally incapacitated. But we had a good conversation, nonetheless, and in his eyes I could see what he once was before addiction took hold of his life. At one point, he asked me if I liked Crystal. I said, "oh yes! Yummy hamburgers!" And he said, "no, no, Crystal. Crystal Meth." Right.

--Made a new friend named Eduardo. He's from Mexico, and didn't speak a lick of English. I speak gringo spanish, but the Lord provided me with enough to talk to him. He was a very sweet man, who seemed to be free of addiction, but was still struggling on the streets. I hope I see him again. He blessed me.

--Robert and Ernie, two of the previously homeless/addicted men in leadership at Set Free, gave us a tour of the neighborhood. We visited the Volunteer Center, a place that provides housing, bathroom facilities, job assistance, and other aid. We toured the Midnight Mission, the main rescue mission in Los Angeles, the Union Rescue Mission, and the Lamp, a mission for the disabled and mentally handicapped. We were privileged to visit the Jonah Project, a Christian mission under construction in a donated 40,000 square foot, four-story structure. In case you don't know what a blessing this is...Set Free Church operates in a 5000 square foot facility. Their rent each month is $7000. Imagine what rent would be for the Jonah Project if they had to provide for themselves.

--Walking around Skid Row today, I saw a man sitting on a curb, lift up his shirt and shoot heroin into his belly. Then, he removed the syringe and twirled it in his fingers like it ain't no thang. A few minutes later, I saw a man smoking his glass crack pipe. Toto, I don't think I'm in Brentwood anymore...

--During our break today, we drove to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. I laid eyes on the Hollywood sign, as well as the sights along Sunset Blvd, Robertson, and Rodeo Drive. I wasn't terribly impressed.

--On our afternoon walk to the urban Gladys Park, I happened to fall in line walking with a girl that looked to be about my age. She was very pretty, but had tons of sores on her face, arms and legs---likely meth sores. She didn't look strung out, but instead, very broken down. It seriously hurt my heart. She continued to walk beside me, and I asked her name. Jessie. She mumbled that somehow she began to hook on the streets. I didn't get much more, because she just tucked her head. And then I asked if I could pray for her. She said yes. So, as we walked down East 6th Street, I placed my hand on her back and prayed for her. It was one of the most important and most privileged moments of my entire life.

--We arrived at Gladys Park to some street ball games, and people gathered. I walked over to a group of four men playing chess, and watched them go back and forth for a few minutes. It was nearing six p.m. by this point, and the guard sounded the bell to close the park. I asked the men if they would be around tomorrow---I wanted a go at it. So, tomorrow, I have a chess date. I can't wait!

So tired, but so joyous!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Last Resort

So much to say, so little time before I need to turn in. Tomorrow is a 6 a.m. day.

The group with a BBC Connect Mag and a Set Free cover story

This morning, we traveled a couple of hours to Cabazon, a very small desert town southeast of Los Angeles. Both the men's and women's Set Free Ranch is located in a trailer park in the town. Think a lot of dirt, mountains made out of rocks, a lot of dirt, poverty, and more dirt. My first impression? This place is awful. And that's kind of the point. Most of the LA rehab centers are cushy and expensive, and seem like more of a vacation than a detox. So when an addict goes to rehab, it's rather easy to be motivated to kick the habit...at least for a little while. Then, when you dump them back into their environment, they're right back to where they were before. Set Free's goal is to disciple these men and women in the "desert" or the "valley," so that it won't be such a culture shock when they return to the real world. And evidently, it works.

When a man or woman accepts Christ at any of the LA Set Free Churches, they have the opportunity to live at the Ranch for 60 days. The first five or so days are spent in the "grace room," where they are able to detox naturally. Then, they join the rest of the participants and it's "beans, rice, and Jesus Christ" discipleship. In the sixteen year history, over 10,000 homeless/addicted men and women have "graduated" the Ranch.

Today, we spent our time at the women's Ranch. Think a poorly lit trailer, limited air conditioning, and a big tented "patio" area where they eat, fellowship, and learn. This ain't the Ritz. You've got women coming in each week, and women graduating each week, so it's typically an unrefined and spiritually immature crowd.
On our way into Cabazon this morning, we picked up a lady named Charlotte, one of the Set Free transfers to the Ranch. Charlotte has been an alcoholic for a very long time, and that a couple of stints in rehab hadn't kept her off the bottle. She felt like the Ranch was her last ditch effort to get her life straightened out. When we picked her up, I met her 13 and 16 year old daughter, and it was humbling to see them urging their mother to go to the Ranch. I was empowered to encourage Charlotte to stop the cycle of addiction in her family and show her how proud of her that we are.

Anna and I were in charge of leading today's devotion, and we spoke about Psalm 23---a chapter that I became familiar with as a child, but has recently has new meaning to me. It was difficult for me to be transparent in front of these women, and to try to establish a connection with them, as I didn't know if they would think that some pampered Tennessee girl could relate to them in any way.

After the devotion, we coupled up with different women to give them manicures with supplies that we'd brought with us. I sat down next to a lady named Valerie. She was very quiet at first, and I began to ask her questions about her life as I filed her nails. It took a few minutes of small talk, but she finally opened up and we began to talk about some similar personal experiences that we are both dealing with. She told me that when I was speaking during devotional, it was like I was speaking right to her. Our lives look so different, but our struggle is the same. I was so humbled that God blessed me with the opportunity to minister to her through what I've learned, but that she was also able to minister to me--without even realizing it!

We were all very humbled when we left the Ranch today. In contrast to the women that live at the halfway house, these women were clearly struggling to conquer their demons. And because most of them are new believers, Biblical concepts are very foreign to them. The refinement process is almost never pretty. I should know.

Later that afternoon, we hugged these women goodbye, and we drove to Yucaipa to visit the original Set Free Church, and meet Pastor Willie. It's a testament of what God can do through a simple man with a vision.

I haven't yet mentioned how hot it was today...102 degrees. But evenso, it still didn't compare to the July humidity of Tennessee. There's a constant cool breeze here, and we were able to see hundreds of wind turbines in action. Very cool.

Tomorrow, we head back down to Skid Row to lead the daily Proverbs and Bible studies, and spend time walking the streets to invite people to the outreach fair on Saturday. I covet your prayers tomorrow for safety and opportunity. Many of the people we will be working with will be high on drugs, jaded from prostitution, and generally distrustful of light walking through a very dark place.

Earlier in the week, I met a drug-addicted, prostitute on Skid Row named Carla. While we were briefly at Skid Row this morning to pick up one of the halfway house leaders, I spoke with Carla for a few minutes. After asking her where she was from, she told me to quit being nosy...that it was wrong of anyone to try to live off someone else's misfortunes. I understand her perspective, and it's got to be difficult to watch the "shiny, happy people" come in and out each week and then return to our fluffy-Jesus lives. I want to love on Carla this week, and desire more opportunities to listen to her. Please pray for the victory over the battle going on inside her heart and her head. I really would love to see her tomorrow.

Lastly, I hope ya'll are still getting all of my title-song references...

Monday, July 13, 2009


It's around fiveish in LA, and I've got a few minutes before we go grab dinner tonight. Our first stop this morning was the church at 7 a.m. for Proverbs. Each morning, attendees collectively read and discuss the chapter of Proverbs that goes along with each day. Today, Proverbs 13. We go around the room, and each person reads one verse. Then when the chapter is read, we go around the room and every person in the room picks out one verse and tells how it applies to their own life. It's so interesting to hear wisdom and perspective from the homeless.

I realized this morning that the men and women that are making an attempt to clean up their lives have everything to lose. Not nothing to lose, but everything. Each clean day is a victory, but the temptation is not far. It's like climbing up a mountain at a 90 degree angle. If you stop or look back, you begin to slide back down or even fall. You have to keep looking up and you have to keep moving.

After Proverbs ended, we drove out to Compton to the women's home. It's a tiny, two-bedroom, one-bathroom house where twelve women live. And they seem perfectly content. They all share the household responsibilities, and all are in school or have jobs. They can stay at this halfway house for as long as they like. Most programs kick you out after 60 days, and often that's not long enough for a person to establish healthy habits and get back on their feet financially.

Later this afternoon, we drove back downtown to the Set Free Church for the afternoon Bible study. Because Proverbs is so early in the morning, most of the homeless that attends are serious about studying the Word. But in the afternoon, people are finally up and moving, and trolling around doped out. There are long glass windows down one-side of the church, and two sets of glass double-doors facing the street. During Bible study, the doors stay open, and prostitutes and drug-addicts walk in and out. I was shocked (and maybe a little more naive than I thought) when I realized a gentleman had "set up shop" outside the front windows to peddle his dope. It's very in-your-face and unapologetic. These are main thoroughfares, not seedy alleyways. It's a sharp contrast to be listening to someone preach hope and then turn your head and look at the ugliness and brokenness outside.

Later this afternoon, we swung by Pinkberry, a fruit and fro-yo parlor native to Cali. I had a tasty fruit parfait with kiwi, blueberry, strawberry, pineapple, coconut, granola, and the original Pinkberry yogurt flavor. It was yummy, but it didn't last long, and now I'm starving. Off to dinner! More tomorrow! BTW, I hope you're getting my title-song references...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Come Monday

I've only been in California for a little over 24 hours, but it already feels like days---in a good way, though. Our flight arrived ahead of schedule on Saturday evening, and we were starving. Pastor Ron, the leader of Set Free Skid Row Church, met us at the airport with a 12 person van on loan for the week. One of our trip leaders, Kim, knows the area well, and took us to dinner at a Mexican joint (and a joint it was), called El Tarasco, at Manhattan Beach. So, within two hours of arriving, I got to see beach, the Pacific Ocean, mountains, and a gorgeous California sunset. Oh, and some delicious Mexican food.

We arrived at our hotel around 10:30 that evening, and were, unsurprisingly, exhausted. Check-in didn't go smoothly, as the hotel booked our reservations, but didn't actually block off any rooms in the system. So for an hour and a half, we didn't think we were actually going to have a place to sleep that night. I was a zombie by this point. After shifting some things around, I finally laid my head on my pillow at 12:15 a.m.---that'd be 2:15 a.m. Nashville time.

Five a.m. came a little too soon. We traveled to downtown Los Angeles this morning to participate in Sunday morning worship at Set Free. The church is basically a big room with stained and bent chairs, a stage, keyboard and a make-shift sound-system. I had some time to mingle with the regulars and the guests before the service. Donald, a gentleman who is struggling with addiction, sang me a song before the service. I asked him, "did you write that?" He said, "no girl, that's Flo Rida." Right.

The service began with a solo from Pastor Ron, but it wasn't really a solo, as the congregants were singing the song loudly too. After a couple more songs, the Set Free choir, led us in worship. I have never heard a more painfully tonedeaf version of "Shout to the Lord," but all I could think about was how beautiful it was, and how it must sound like sweet, sweet music to my Lord.

The offering was taken up next, and I watched as homeless men and women pulled cash out of their pockets to place inside the plate. I know, right? It was incredibly humbling to watch. And humorous too. I watched two men make change in the offering plate, and the "deacon" hold the plate like it wasn't a big deal.

Pastor Ron gave his personal testimony this morning, and talked about how he struggled to release himself from his own snare of sin addiction, but that the Lord never gave up on Him. While his message translates well to his homeless attenders, it also struck a chord with me. We are all so different on the outside, but we all still need Jesus and his saving grace. After the benediction and prayer time, we mingled a bit more and then left to come back to the hotel.

Our only day of "free time" was today, and our leaders had a surprise for us. They took us to the Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach. We ate lunch at a little beachside pub and then walked down to Venice Beach to see the muscle men, then onto the Pier. I was shocked and amazed to see how many people were crammed on the beach and in the water. It was a sharp contrast to Gulf Beaches, even on a crowded day.

A local anti-war organization set-up an exhibit of crosses to signify the number of casualties, both American and Middle-Eastern, of our current "war." It was disturbing, yet oddly a beautiful exhibit.

I walked through the throngs of people down to the beach to dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean. I can now mark that one off my list. It was ice cold, but clean.

I'm sunburned, and tired, and headed to bed. We have to leave the hotel at 6:10 tomorrow morning to make "Proverbs" at Set Free. More about that soon. Goodnight!

Friday, July 10, 2009

California knows how to party...

...a little too well. Tupac might not be so proud, now that Los Angeles is home to one of the largest homeless/addict populations in the United States. I depart tomorrow afternoon for Los Angeles, to serve this population on the streets of Skid Row. During the trip, my church team will be working with Set Free Church to distribute clothing/necessities, serve meals, conduct Bible studies, facilitate church services, street reach, and generally love on the unloved.

Set Free Church was founded in 1993 in a storefront building of Yucaipa, CA. Led by Pastor Willie Dalgity and his wife, Marsha, they made it their mission to take the message of Jesus Christ to the streets of their community to minister to the homeless, hurting, addicted, hopeless and forgotten people in needs of God's love. Sixteen years later, there are more than 60 Set Free Churches scattered throughout California and the United States.

Set Free Church is different than any homeless shelter or addiction program. Among providing for homeless men and women, they hold daily chapel services to share the good news of Christ. If a man or woman accepts Christ, they are offered the opportunity to board a bus to the "Ranch," a camp two hours away in the California desert where it's "beans, rice, and Jesus Christ." This gets the homeless out of their destructive environment. After arriving at the camp, addicts are given around a week to detox naturally, and then begin discipleship alongside the others. It's 60 days of intense Bible Study, prayer and worship. The participants also learn some job training skills, life skills, etc. After 60 days, the participants are required to get a job, and they move to a "halfway house" of sorts in Compton. Some participants go on to start Set Free churches in other parts of the country---the "redeemed" homeless are mentoring the "lost" homeless. This same model of an inner-city church and "ranch" is used at all 60 Set Free Churches

Here's a little bit about what we will be doing on a daily basis:

Saturday, July 11 - Arrive

Sunday, July 12 - Downtown LA at Skid Row Church: Lead devotional

Monday, July 13 - Los Angeles Women's Home: Build relationships, give manicures, love on these women.

Tuesday, July 14 - Set Free Women's Ranch in Yucaipa, CA: Build relationships, lead devotional, love on these women

Wednesday, July 15 - Downtown LA at Skid Row Church: Lead Bible studies, fellowship, serve meals, pass out clothing/necessities

Thursday, July 16 - Downtown LA at Skid Row Church / Street Reach in Skid Row: Lead Bible studies, fellowship, serve meals, passout clothing/necessities, invite those on the street to come to outreach fair

Friday, July 17 - Downtown LA at Skid Row Church / Street Reach in Skid Row: Lead Bible studies, fellowship, serve meals, passout clothing/necessities, invite those on the street to come to outreach fair

Saturday, July 18 - Downtown LA at Skid Row Church / Street Outreach Fair: Conduct street fair with free food, clothing/necessities, live music, preaching, etc.

Sunday, July 19 - Depart for Home

I would appreciate and covet your prayers while I am away. You can pray specifically for safety, focus, authenticity, love, kindness, mercy, and acceptance. Also---I'm a bit under the weather with a sore throat, and I would love prayers for healing before my trip. If time permits, I will blog while I'm on the trip. Until then, thank you for your thoughts and prayers!

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