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THE CAUSE WITHIN YOUFINDING THE ONE GREAT THING YOU WERE CREATED TO DO IN THIS WORLD
By Matthew Barnett
BARNACopyright © 2011 Matthew Barnett
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA NIGHT ON THE STREETS
Something stirred me awake. I struggled to open my eyes. My surroundings slowly came into focus. It was dark, with rays of light off to the side that barely penetrated my peripheral vision. I heard indistinct noises nearby, a kind of low mumbling coming from a few feet away. And I felt a presence. As things came into focus, I found that somebody was staring into my eyes. I stared back and realized it wasn't a somebody—it was a something.
I squinted to crystallize the image and realized it was a cat. No, wait, it was a ... rat. A rat the size of a cat! Supersized. Its eyes were maybe three inches from mine, its whiskers even closer. Other than the twitching of its nostrils as it catalogued my scent, it was perfectly still, studying me with obvious hostility.
Now I was awake, aware of where I was and what was happening. I remembered having carefully placed my large sheet of cardboard on the pavement in this alleyway, maybe twenty minutes ago, hoping for an hour of peaceful slumber on the streets of Los Angeles. What was it—four, maybe five o'clock in the morning? An unrhythmic series of moans filled the air from other homeless people lying farther up the alley, doing their best to get some shut-eye. I'd dozed off for a few minutes before this bucktoothed rodent invaded my twelve square feet of prime real estate.
I struggled to my feet, picked up my cardboard bed, and slowly shuffled out of the alley onto the main street. My watch said it was 2:13 a.m. Time was obviously on a holiday tonight. The light from the streetlamps was the only illumination in this part of the city.
I passed by a boarded-up shop and caught the strong, ever-present whiff of urine. That seemed to be the odor of the homeless nation: there were no bathrooms available to us in the dead of night—or during a large share of the day, for that matter. When you had to go, you found a wall in a vacant section of an alley and did your business. The Porta Potties strategically distributed around this section of the city, meant for the homeless, were of no use to us since they'd been hijacked by the prostitutes and drug dealers, who complete their transactions inside those mobile offices. They were the only businesses open 24-7 down here, peddling flesh and pharms. No homeless person in his right mind would enter those disease-riddled fiberglass boxes unless they were completing a deal.
Fellow vagabonds shuffled past me, traveling in the opposite direction. A woman wearing a tattered army jacket and a wraparound skirt that was frayed at her calloused, bare feet hobbled by. Her hair was a mess of tangles, her eyes sunken, wrinkles creasing her forehead as she shuffled along. A frail man who looked to be in his mid-fifties but was probably thirtyish was a few paces behind her, toting a ragged backpack that I suspected contained all of his worldly possessions. Another haggard-looking fellow was ten feet farther down the sidewalk, slumped over one of the parking meters, staring vacantly across the street. He had nowhere to go, no time by which he had to be there. He was simply taking a break from his nightly march to wherever.
These fellow denizens of the streets were dead on their feet, but experience had taught them to keep moving, to stay alert. Darkness was the scourge of life; inactivity was an invitation to danger. While I trooped up and down the streets of skid row, I occasionally looked these passersby straight in the face, searching for signs of hope, but had learned to lower my standards and seek a simple expression of life. Very few returned my gaze. These people were on autopilot, traipsing lifelessly forward, silently repeating the mantra the homeless chant to themselves each night: Gotta make it 'til sunrise. Gotta make it 'til sunrise....
* * *
As a bloodcurdling scream radiated from around the corner ahead, I ducked into the hollowed-out doorway of a storefront and leaned against the mesh security door for support. I felt an indescribable mixture of emotions: yes, there was fear, but it was tempered by joy, intrigue, excitement, and compassion. You see, I was on skid row by choice. This was a one-night-only command performance among the people whom I have spent my entire adult life serving.
I am the pastor of a "megachurch," a proud bastion of Christianity in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Tonight was the fifteenth anniversary of the beginning of our ministry, known as the Dream Center, in which we help to restore the shattered dreams and empty lives of broken people. To the horror of my church colleagues, and against the advice of many, I decided this was where I wanted to spend that anniversary: living among the very people I have come to love during these past fifteen years.
If I had stayed with the original game plan, I would have been home in my comfortable bed, lying next to my beautiful, loving wife, Caroline, resting peacefully in our single-family house while our two children slept securely down the hall. I would have been dreaming about the incredible celebration that would have taken place earlier in the evening at the special dinner planned for the hundred or so key people who made the Dream Center tick. We would have watched videos of past ministry victories; joyfully sung praises to God; eaten a delicious, well-prepared meal; and listened to people's recollections of how God had done miracle after miracle in our midst and inspired us to keep battling the odds for fifteen years. It would have been a night to remember.
Now, barely five hours into my "alternative celebration," I knew this was certainly a night I would never forget.
A few weeks before, as the planned celebration got closer and the preparations intensified, I felt uneasy in my gut. That's often how God grabs my attention. In response, I spent time praying for Him to clarify what He wanted. Soon it became clear to me that a party to celebrate ourselves was not what God had in mind. I could sense that He was looking for me to do something radical, not something comfortable and self-serving. Unsure what that might be, I enlisted several people from my team to join me in prayer and to wait for further divine direction.
Finally, the solution came into focus: I should spend the anniversary night on the streets of skid row in Los Angeles. I've worked hand in hand with poor and suffering people for fifteen years. I've spent countless hours on the city streets offering to help them and even to transport them from skid row to our campus, where we partnered with them in breaking the bondage of poverty and bad choices. But in those fifteen years I had never spent a night sleeping in their midst, on the concrete. Truthfully, it had never even occurred to me to do so. Wasn't I doing enough already?
Maybe not. The clear impression I received was that God was intent upon pushing me beyond my comfort zone, orchestrating something that would forever change me. Again.
The sheer magnitude of the idea marked it as God's; the absurdity of the option underscored its necessity.
It became obvious that throwing ourselves a party was appropriate by the world's standards, but not by God's. An anniversary gala would be a sign of naive hubris. From the day this ministry began, it was built upon going against the grain, doing the unexpected. A party? The greatest celebration would be to demonstrate solidarity with those I serve, to dig more deeply into their world so I could serve them more profoundly.
* * *
So after we had our regular Thursday night service at the church, I put on the clothes I'd grabbed specially for this night—a grimy T-shirt; a generic gray hoodie; a pair of baggy, ill-fitting cargo pants; and sneakers.
My prep team at the church included a tall, slender African American man named Lawrence,* who was one of our security guards. Lawrence originally came to the Dream Center from the same streets to which we were headed. He'd been desperately in need of help, had successfully completed one of our recovery programs, and now had his life on an even keel. When he heard what we were up to, he rushed to my side and begged me not to go. Seeing my resolve, he changed his tactic and insisted on preparing me for the odyssey that lay ahead.
"You don't know what you doing, Pastor," he said respectfully. "Let me get you ready so you can survive the night. There's things you don't know about the streets, and those streets is mean, Pastor. I can teach you a few things that will help." In retrospect, I believe Lawrence's survival tips may have saved my life.
After we smeared some grease on my face and ruffled my hair, I boarded a church van and was driven to the central business district of Los Angeles. Amidst the towering buildings in center city I disembarked and said a quick prayer with the team members in the van. Then I pulled my large piece of cardboard from the back and trudged the six blocks from the corporate haven to the edge of skid row. I had no money in my pockets; I really wanted to know what it felt like to be homeless. My only protection, at Lawrence's insistence, was a well-worn Bible.
As I strode toward my destination, I again pondered what I was about to do. Was this insane? I wondered. I'm the husband of a wife who loves me, the father of two young children who depend on me, the pastor of a thriving church that gets its direction from me. I'm not indispensable, but was this urban adventure demonstrating the wisdom of a godly man? Did this decision display the discernment of a true leader? Was I engaging in an act of courage, or was it mere foolishness? Was I demeaning the homeless by dressing up and pretending to be one of them? What was the likelihood of even surviving the night?
My self-doubts were interrupted by the sight of a genuine homeless guy—not a fake like memoving toward skid row some twenty feet ahead of me on the otherwise deserted sidewalk. I called out to him and explained who I really was and asked him if he thought I would survive the night. His reply came without emotion or hesitation.
"Nope," he said evenly, looking me in the eye. "You're too clean. They'll sniff you out in a heartbeat. Won't work. Go home." He nodded a silent good-bye and resumed his slow hobble toward the edge of helplessness.
For a moment that seemed like all the convincing I needed. Maybe God had sent him to meet me there, an angel of mercy, to deliver one final warning, a word of sanity to break the spell of lunacy that was propelling me toward disaster. Maybe it was time to call off this whole charade. Who was I trying to fool?
But as I stood there trying to get a firm fix on my emotions, my confidence returned. I wasn't here to perform a circus trick or to get the public's attention—"Hey everyone! Come see the pastor who lived for a night on skid row! Hear tales of bravery and stories of the dark side!" No, I was on the streets because I have come to truly love the unlovable. I have discovered how God can love the people that nobody else wants. And frankly, after fifteen years, I was worried that I'd lost my edge.
As a "successful" pastor, was I settling for what was now a routine process that insulated me from the suffering and tragedies that had sparked my ministry so many years ago? Had I become too comfortable in what we did to serve poor and hurting people? Was I now simply a motivational speaker, a fund-raiser, an organizational figurehead, a ministry expert doing good works but living a safe, sanitized existence?
I turned to watch the homeless man shuffle away from me. In that moment it was clear that God wanted me to do something radical; He wanted me to do this. I couldn't imagine anything more radical than humbling myself in this fashion, embracing the same risks that Jesus Christ had adopted when He lived and ministered among the untouchables of His day.
Hanging out on skid row for a day or two, with an open mind and heart, was not meant to be a quaint or clever adventure that would "preach well." It was a necessary recalibration to get me back on track—in sync with the cause God had instilled in me fifteen years before.
Excerpted from THE CAUSE WITHIN YOU by Matthew Barnett Copyright © 2011 by Matthew Barnett. Excerpted by permission of BARNA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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