We’d worked hard to set-up our first Urban Project for LaFe (Latino Fellowship) at UCLA, a project designed to focus on systemic injustice, injustice that is inherent in institutions. But with two weeks to go before it began, we were still without housing for the Urban Project students in Pico-Union, a predominantly Central American area of Los Angeles. Well-networked community activists were sending out ‘feelers’ on our behalf to help us, but nothing was turning up. I was literally going door-to-door, trying to explain in broken Spanish to whatever apartment managers I could find why they should rent two apartments for only five weeks. Time was running out. Would the project even get started if we couldn’t find housing?
At one point, I stopped in front of a blue, two-story house. Behind me was a man with a broom, sweeping the sidewalk. I could tell from the numerous mailboxes that the house was subdivided into a multi-family unit. But why should this be any different than the dead-ends I have faced in my recent attempts? I almost kept walking. “You’ve got to turn over every stone,’ I told myself.
So I turned to the guy with the broom. “ Hey, you don’t know if this place has space to rent, do you?” He gave me a quizzical look and responded in the negative. I could tell he was trying to figure me out; a white guy with a clip board looking for housing in Pico-Union. “What are you looking for?” he asked. As we talked, I found out that he was the manager, and I explained my situation. “You’re never going to find housing going door-to-door,” he responded. “You should talk to Ravi at the hardware store. He’s like the barber: he knows everyone.”
Ten minutes later I walked into the hardware store. People and supplies were everywhere. It’s the kind of place that’s too busy selling things to keep neat, but the guys who work there know where everything is. Behind the counter stood a man in a blue mechanics shirt with an oval name patch. This was Ravi.
“You need to talk to Sam,” said Ravi, “Here’s his number.” I was starting to feel a little like Alice in Wonderland. I called Sam on the phone at the cash register and told him I was looking for housing. “Tell Ravi,” Sam says, “to call Mario and tell him you’re coming. Go to the building on the corner.”
Five minutes later I met Mario, who pointed me to Dan, the manager of Sam’s six-story apartment building. The apartments were clean, affordable and small. And there were lots of children around. “Sounds like you’re doing a good thing this summer,” Dan told me after I’d explained why I was there. “If it was up to me, I’d rent to you. Let me talk to Sam—I know how to talk to him. I’ll take care of it.”
Take care of it he did. With four days to go, we met for breakfast with Sam. Sam, an immigrant from Beirut and pure businessman, cut straight to the chase: “So you’re doing something this summer and you need a place to stay.” I explained our situation and our plan to work with the Salvadoran immigrant community. Sam looked at Dan. “We’ve got space, don’t we?” Dan responded, “We’ve got space.” Sam looked at me and said, “No problem.” No application. No credit check. No cash up front. Ultimately it cost half of what we had budgeted, and only four blocks from El Rescate (The Rescue), the ministry we planned to work with during the summer.
After breakfast, I chuckled all the way back to the car. I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. “What have you got planned this summer, God? I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do in the coming weeks!”
We lived in small studio apartments: Three women in one, and four men in the other, both apartments also occupied by an uncounted number of roaches. El Rescate, where we worked, is in many ways typical of many non-profits: big ideals, tight budget, and lots of potential. Where it differs is in stature and track record. Founded by Salvadoran refugees and a group of churches responding to the Salvadoran crisis during 1981, this group works to meet the real needs of Pico-Union’s immigrant community.
Alberto and Andrea (my co-leader) helped organize an international conference that El Rescate ran this past September at USC. Daisy and I worked in the legal services department, filing immigration documents primarily for Central American immigrants.
When not at work, our time was spent cooking, shopping, studying the life of Moses, praying, reading and discussing history and theology, playing with the kids in the hallway and visiting one anothers’ families.
I often think of summer missions in terms of moments. These become markers that help categorize what’s happening for me personally, or for the team. There was the God-is-amazing moment over the housing. As our summer mission ended, I had the What-does-it-mean? moment. But I couldn’t believe it was over. I wondered, “Did we achieve our goals?”
Once again I’ve realized that helping young adults grow into mature disciples of Jesus, who are committed to community, prayer and justice, is way bigger than a five-week project. But I did realize how important prayer is, that prayer brings meaning, healing, and hope to these challenges. God miraculously found us project housing as we persisted in prayerful action. And prayer will sustain us in the long struggle to be and make disciples who work for justice on behalf of the poor in the nation’s urban areas.