Making connections with the housed and homeless
It's been a full week. Not busy per se, but full of new encounters and surroundings. On Tuesday, I traveled to LaVerne (about 45 minutes north of Santa Ana) to meet with Mar Spencer, the youth leader of the LaVerne Church of the Brethren. We discussed ways in which Príncipe de Paz and the LaVerne congregation can collaborate and forge new relationships, specifically through youth activities and fundraisers for this summer's National Youth Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was an exciting meeting marked with a "Yes, let's try that" approach as opposed to a "That will never work" response. I've gotta say, to be the coordinator of new programs and events between enthusiastic, positive leaders at both congregations is exhilarating and freeing. My dreams of bringing Southern California Brethren congregations closer together has—so far—been easy to turn into a reality thanks to the support of the leadership at these churches. I'll share more about these programs in a later post.
Within Príncipe de Paz, I've gotten to know more people by their first names, but there are many still to learn. It's been wonderful to fellowship with this congregation at their Tuesday evening Bible studies (dubbed Taco Tuesdays for the meal served afterward), Friday evening worship services (including dinner) and Sunday morning services (followed by—you guessed it—lunch).
Sundays have been my busiest social day thus far. During yesterday's service, I led Sunday School for about 25 kids ranging in age from 6–12. Thankfully for me, many of the children speak both Spanish and English. Another thing I was extremely grateful for: the youth assistants who help keep the kids focused and on task. We did an interactive scripture reading of the story of Moses and Jethro found in Exodus 18, tying it into the values of teamwork and respect. Our slogan for the day was, "On God's team, players show respect." After the Bible lesson, I taught the kids a couple of camp songs I learned when I was their age, including my dad's favorite: The Princess Pat. The kids were singing it well into the afternoon, so I think I'll be introducing a new camp song each week. Even more popular than the camp songs: post-church playtime with Leo and Max. The kids absolutely love playing with the boys, brushing them and giving them treats, and the furballs are eating up every moment. I'm so glad they're enjoying their temporary home as much as I am.
After church, I had lunch with three siblings who are involved in children's and youth programs at the congregation: Rudy, Vanessa and Ruth Amaya. They are some of the most kind, salt-of-the-earth people I've met, and they provide invaluable insight as to how best connect with the kids. One of the overarching questions I had was to how best tailor a lesson or activity to a group of children that come from such a wide range of backgrounds and Latin American countries. Rudy's answer was simple: "Just be present. Being there for these kids already means the world to many of them. Anything you do above and beyond that is icing on the cake." Rudy also gave me some pointers on specific individuals who need extra affirmation, encouragement or space. Given that six months isn't nearly enough time to forge deep relationships with every child at Príncipe de Paz, having this heads-up on some of the kids was extremely helpful.
Despite all of the Sunday fun (minus the Vikings' embarrassing loss to the Eagles), Saturday proved to be the most meaningful day of the week for me. Príncipe de Paz serves a meal to about 150 homeless folks in the area on three Saturdays each month. Families take turns preparing the meal at the church and then drive the church van to one of the nearby homeless shelters or tent cities. This week, I tagged along with Areli and Ramón and their three children. This is the same generous family that brings me tamales and champurrado a couple days a week (Ramón sells tamales on the street so he's a pro). It was great to get to know their three children Marcos (13), Ricardo (11) and Yasmine (7) on the way to the Anaheim Angels baseball stadium, where hundreds of tents are crammed between the stadium parking lot and the bone-dry bed of the Santa Ana River. A bike trail slices through the tent city of 500–1,000 homeless.
"Food, free! Food, free!" shouted Areli and Ramón as we lugged large aluminum foil baking pans filled with spaghetti along the bike trail and to our serving spot in the heart of this colorful jungle of temporary shelters. After a couple minutes, people started emerging from their tents and graciously accepted styrofoam containers filled with pasta and meatballs. One man took an extra portion for his girlfriend and came back with a container of freshly baked cinnamon-sugar chips for us to enjoy. It was a perfect glimpse of humanity for me: a family taking the time to generously prepare a meal so the hungry could be fed, and in turn, a couple down on their luck sharing what they could as a sign of their gratitude.
That same couple informed us that the Orange County Sheriff's Department would be clearing this area of all homeless residents beginning today. Sure enough, this morning's Los Angeles Times had an article about the heartbreaking situation. With all of the homeless shelters already full, I wonder where these people will go. They'll likely set up another tent city elsewhere, and be moved out of that area, and then have to start all over again. It's a vicious cycle, layered with issues of drug abuse, mental illness and a lack of opportunities to get these people back on their feet. There's no easy solution, and my heart hurts with a lack of answers to the problem of how we end this cycle. But I do know this: I want to hold onto that perfect little glimpse of humanity I witnessed on Saturday. Love can grow in the most unlikely settings, and I pray that somehow, during these six months, I'm planting seeds so it can thrive in the hearts of those who need it most.