Four weeks ago, I walked onto the broken streets of Skid Row with trembling hands.
That day haunts me.
Everywhere I looked in that downtown Los Angeles district, I saw visible, blatant expressions of human degradation. I saw image-bearers of God in the literal gutter.
The people I met still haunt me, with hearts worn so ragged on their sleeves and all earthly belongings pitched under a sidewalk tent. Divine strength guided me to set my face like flint, having diminished personal dread but increased fear for lost souls.
On the corner of 6th and San Pedro, I dialogued––knees on the sidewalk––with 59-year-old Rachel, who toted a Mary Kay hat and plastic grocery bag of good works.
She recited Ephesians 2:8-9 from memory and smiled benevolently. So I took its context, the far-distantly memorized Ephesians 1, and shared its truth with her––a dying woman in need of redemption and forgiveness of sins offered by the richly gracious Savior (Eph. 1:7).
The gospel was a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere laced so heavily with smog and smoke and cursing cries and seductively rhythmic music. The background soundtrack of cursing and sleazy hip-hop echoed off dirty buildings and through alleys cluttered with trash and people. I collected every weight I witnessed in that spiritually desolate and depraved place.
Three men huddled together and smoked. Yelling resounded. The place smelled like hellfire––a strange concoction of urine, sweat and smoke plumes to go with a medley of sights and to some extent, horrors.
On one stretch of sidewalk, a misstep meant stepping on syringes to my left or a sprawled, passed-out man on his back to my right. I wanted to kneel down, grab the outstretched palm facing the sky and feel for a pulse on his wrist. He barely looked alive. A few steps later, a crouching drunk man gestured, squinting through bloodshot eyes that wandered and glazed over every sight with alcohol-soaked perception.
My heart fractured time and time again.
Though secure in Christ’s all-sustaining grace and the truth of His atonement, I was shaken to my core.
“I’m too intoxicated to fellowship, man,” JJ said to a guy in our group, leaning against a camping chair perched on the sidewalk and smiling the slow smile of the inebriated––a smile that sent my stomach into lurching. In sudden sobriety, he said, “I’m a Christian, but I guess this makes me a hypocrite…”
“How does a broken man get out of LA?” Darryl asked honestly and hungrily––hungry for hope, like the others wasting away all around us. “I want to believe in Christ. I do. I’m sorry, but some people are just too far gone. How can a man who has only ever done wrong his entire life be saved?”
“That’s the gospel!” I wanted to cry out. “I am also a wretched sinner and unworthy recipient of His grace. But praise be to God for His redeeming love!”
Instead, I stood in stunned silence as I beheld the visceral, exposed insides of a tortured conscience.
Darryl walked away with tear-filled eyes.
It’s been weeks since I visited Skid Row but I’m sure not much has changed. People are still there “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
A few days later, I shared the solemn burden of my heart with my entire university in a chapel interview. I looked out on a sea of souls and said, “There is absolutely nothing preventing us from being in the exact same position they’re in––except the restraining mercy of God.”
Sin cannot be euphemized. Nor should it. Apart from Christ, I’d wallow in the same depths. But God.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I.”—John Bradford
That Sunday, my heart was troubled. I transitioned so jerkily from the sweat-stained Saturday streets of Skid Row to the spotless Sunday-morning pews of a well-respected church. Row after row of collared jackets. Well-respected and beautiful people. Among all the bright faces, I saw Andre, Byron, Rachel, Darryl, Robert, JJ, and Michael.
These people are still out there somewhere. They’re hurtling down a hell-bound track, unless the sovereign God of all men resurrects and redirects their souls into submission to His Word.
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” ––Romans 10:14–15
Their names and faces and voices are stuck in my head like a recycled radio tune, beckoning me to come back.
I beg the Lord to take me back––to take me anywhere where rebels may be redeemed through the proclamation of the Word. There is too much of an urgency to wait around.
I want to stride into our fallen world with an unshakable confidence and living hope, despite a sea of weakness and propensity to fear. May “His strength is enough” be my battle cry, as the Word of truth flows through my veins and thoughts and the gospel flavors every word spoken.
We should not flinch from looking at the reality of sin-saturation, seeing with wide-eyed devastation the wreck of a world we live in. But we must take our eyes from these dismal images and pray they drive our hearts to Christ.
There is no sweeter life’s mission––to trek broken streets and reach lost souls for Him.