The overpowering smell of fish greets me as I climb out of the car. The Pacific Fresh Fish Co. overlooks an empty street. In a few hours these streets will be filled with people, tents and sleeping bags.
Every week a group of students from my college walk the streets of Skid Row—a community in downtown Los Angeles with one of America’s largest populations of homeless people. Each night on Skid Row, thousands of people sleep in homeless shelters or on the pavement. To them, home does not mean a fireplace, a front yard and a warm bed; it can simply mean a cardboard box and a shopping cart piled with belongings. Walking for the first time on Skid Row, I felt the weight of every head that would not be resting on a pillow tonight. I was overwhelmed by the chaos, and it was hard to imagine how I could do anything to help.
When I started volunteering on Skid Row as a tutor at an after-school program called S.A.Y. Yes, I was convinced I would change lives, rescue people from despair and preach truth to people who had been fed lies. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My time at this program has opened my eyes and given me the chance to serve. But the ways God has used me do not seem life-changing, and many times the effect that I have is barely discernible.
The kids I work with come from broken homes. Many of them live in shelters, and some didn’t even speak English when they started coming to the program. They are stubborn and difficult—with good reason. Because of their hardships, my interactions with them were never simple and easy. I often leave S.A.Y. Yes disheartened and disappointed, lacking patience and feeling like a failure. Sometimes it’s hard to continue offering help to kids who don’t seem to want anything to do with me. The afternoons I spend with them can be rough, and for the first few weeks I felt I wasn’t making any progress with any of them. I questioned whether or not God truly intended to use me in this place.
“Walking for the first time on Skid Row, I felt the weight of every head that would not be resting on a pillow tonight.”
Then, one fateful day, Heidi gave me a high five.
To understand how important and encouraging this was to me, you have to understand Heidi. She is one of the most mischievous, spunky and feisty fourth-graders I’ve ever met. The first day I worked with her, she was supposed to read Because of Winn-Dixie out loud to me. Instead she sat there, hiding her face in the book, refusing to look at me or answer my questions. The second week she was a bit more vocal and, when I prompted her to round the number 978 to the nearest hundred, she yelled out every number except the right one—even though she knew the correct answer. Instead of testing her knowledge, every week she tested my patience. Despite the difficulties—and perhaps even because of them—I grew to care for her and to love her more than I thought I could. I even took her trick-or-treating on Halloween. That night she not only gave me several high fives, but she let me give her a piggy-back ride and even shared her candy with me. The smiles and the joy of that night made all those previous struggles with her completely worth it.
Every week I learn something new, both about this world and about myself. I am still figuring out who I am and how God plans to use me. It’s easy to feel that what I am doing is not enough, especially when I don’t see the immediate benefits of my actions. But I think God uses instances like these to test our true intentions.
It’s easy to be so overwhelmed by the brokenness in this world that we accept defeat before we even try. And it’s true that I can’t save anyone. I can’t single-handedly end poverty, save drug addicts or force alcoholics to see the truth. I can’t get these people off the streets—I can barely even get Heidi to do her math homework. But I can begin by opening my eyes to what I am capable of doing. My time on Skid Row has taught me that though I might have the passion to drastically change the world, I am still a limited human. By responding to the call God placed on my heart to become involved with the community of Skid Row, I was committing myself to His work, regardless of the results.
But even if I personally can’t end world hunger or save orphans from human trafficking, I can sit at that table on the corner of 6th Avenue and St. Pedro, a street where, in a few hours, tents will pop and blankets will be rolled out. I can sit and help Heidi round numbers. I can sort the donated clothes. I can play Uno with Julio.
I must always remember it’s never really about my limitations anyway. It’s never really about what I can do. It’s about whether or not I move. Whether or not I recognize that the patience I am learning to have with these kids is not from myself—it is the patience God has always had with me. The love I offer is the love I never deserved to be given.
This world is broken, and it’s easy to feel like there is no hope. But God is sovereign, and when we persevere and seek to serve Him and not serve ourselves, He will reward us. Even through a simple high five.
“For you know the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. Now finish your work so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has not according to what one does not have” (2 Corinthians 8:9-15).
Rebecca Johnson is a student studying English Literature and Sociology at Biola University.