It’s a brisk Friday night in early March, and for the faithful gathered near the corner of Fifth and San Pedro in Los Angeles’ gritty Skid Row, that means one thing: It’s time to worship.
Tonight, about two dozen of them have assembled on the sidewalk outside the modest office of a homeless-outreach ministry. They sit on plastic yellow chairs, praying and praising as a woman sings Gospel music over a scratchy speaker. There’s a faint smell of urine lingering in the air and an occasional profane interruption from a passerby, but even so, this is holy ground.
As the service winds down, Biola senior Doran Brown stands up to introduce herself and the small group of Biola students seated throughout the congregation.
“The Bible says that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and we’d like to do that for you tonight,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what street you grew up on. It doesn’t matter what your skin color is. We’re all God’s children, and we just want to love you.”
The streets of Skid Row are some of the bleakest in the nation. Within this 50-square-block area of Los Angeles resides the country’s largest population of homeless people — many of whom suffer from serious mental disorders and addictions.
For Doran Brown, this area has become a place both of rich friendship and deep emotional turmoil during her time as a Biola student.
Two years ago, on a hot Los Angeles afternoon, she and a friend were headed to their weekly student ministry at an inner city after-school program. That’s when an idea hit them: What if they started parking a few blocks farther away and handing out bottled water to some of the people living on the streets?
“It was an icebreaker,” Doran says. “We just wanted to get to know them.”
The water proved to be a great conversation starter. Soon, it was part of their weekly routine. As time went on, Doran met dozens of people and — despite her demanding schedule as a nursing student — began making trips more often to spend time with her newfound friends.
As she earned their trust, they began to share their stories and their prayer requests. One woman opened up about being abused by the boyfriend she lives with on the streets. A cancer-stricken man confided that he hadn’t seen his children in 10 years.
Doran soon began recruiting other Biola students to join her on Friday evenings or Saturday afternoons. Sometimes they brought guitars to lead worship services along the sidewalks. Other times, they brought hamburgers or tents — paid for from their own dwindling bank accounts. At one point last spring, a group of students hosted a sidewalk barbecue, grilling up dozens of hot dogs and playing a game of football in the street.
“The main thing is to build relationships,” Doran says. “Down there, they hear the gospel so much. They hear the gospel before meals, after meals. But they don’t have a lot of true friendships. So it’s been huge just to hear their stories and do life with them. … We want to preach the gospel while also serving them with God’s love.”
On this particular March night, the group of Biola students — some regular visitors and some first-timers — has been invited to the small church service by a woman they recently met. After the worship, several students wait awkwardly inside the office, not sure if anyone will take them up on their offer to wash feet. But eventually the people start shuffling in.
A gray-haired man named Brother Johnson takes a seat facing Biola alumnus Jason Williams (’06), who puts on a pair of latex gloves and grabs a baby wipe.
“I better pray for you if you’re going to be washin’ these feet,” Brother Johnson jokes as Jason goes to work between his toes. “Man, it’s like you’re detailing a car.”
All around the room, students are scrubbing away, rubbing lotion on cracked feet, and asking questions. “Your shoes look like basketball shoes. Do you play?” “Where are you from?” “Can I pray for you?”
Soon, prayerful murmurs are filling the room.
“I tell you what,” Brother Johnson says, “washing people’s feet — that’s God right there.”
Down on the streets of Skid Row, the people are used to well-meaning volunteers coming and going, Doran says. While they welcome handouts, they’re often skeptical about the motives of outsiders, she says.
“We don’t want [what we do] to seem like charity,” she says. “We want to maintain a person’s dignity. I don’t think it helps to maintain a person’s dignity when you’re just going down there to do charity work, in that sense.”
One of the biggest needs she and others seek to fill is the need for human interaction. So many of the people living on the streets are deeply alone, with no friends or family to care for them, she says.
She mentions a woman who recently died alone of pneumonia after three months on the street by herself.
“Who will take notice?” she asks. “Someone should notice and care when a soul leaves this earth.”
As she’s built friendships over the past two years, she’s had opportunities to help in ways big and small: finding transitional housing where possible, making phone calls, performing first aid. Some days, conversations have stretched on for hours about Jesus and salvation. Some of the people have expressed a desire to be discipled or enter drug recovery programs.
“We’ve definitely seen fruit,” Doran says. “It’s always hard because you want to see people get clean and get their lives together. But I definitely know that I didn’t become a Christian by one person telling me the gospel one time. It was definitely a process.”
Ultimately, she wants to do more, she says. She dreams of one day opening a clinic where she can use her education as a nurse and also enlist other doctors and nurses to volunteer their services.
But for now, she can only do so much as a student, she says.
After three hours, the outdoor church has finally closed up for the night. On the walk back to their cars, the students stop to visit with some of the people who are beginning to settle into their sleeping bags. They chat briefly with a woman named Mary and joke with a friend called “Bling Bling” about his newly acquired Twister board.
Eventually, two cars head back for Biola, but Doran and a few others want to stick around a bit longer. Down Gladys Avenue, they strike up a conversation with LaSaul, a large man with a passion for Scripture and plenty to say about life on Skid Row.
“Jesus had compassion with power,” he tells them in the commanding voice of a Southern black preacher. “We’ve got empathy with no power. We need God’s power.”
He rattles off story after story — some amusing, some heartbreaking. After about an hour, it’s finally time to go home. But before this last group piles into their car, LaSaul looks Doran squarely in the eyes.
“What you’re doing down here is good,” he tells her in a slow half-whisper. “Don’t you give up.”
“Remember what Paul said in Galatians 6,” he continues. “Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”