“I’d be in first grade,” I told my executive director. “Like, say I was born the day I started working on Skid Row, I would have gone through all these big phases; I’d have cut teeth, crawled, walked, said my first words, dressed myself and then gone off to school, carrying a lunch box and learning to play dodgeball all in the time I’ve been here. It kinda feels like I grew up on these streets, with these people.”
“Rachel, you kinda did.”
I wish I could look back on these last six years in some cool video montage, one with a cool thought-provoking soundtrack, with a little slow motion here, a contemplative look there, something to really impress the folks over at the Academy who vote for the Oscars. I’d look back and see a younger me as I nervously began this journey, so unaware of what life was about to become. Surely there would be things I’d forgotten, maybe even prayed to forget, but there would be also be so much more. I’ve learned more in the last 3/5 of a decade than I could ever put into words, but I am going to try. Please pardon the tear splotches on the keyboard and pray they don’t short circuit my already failing Macbook as I write.
On the streets of Skid Row I’ve learned tangible grace. I’ve seen what authentic community looks like in the form of one woman caring for another as they sleep side by side on the cold sidewalk. I’ve watched as a hungry man handed a woman he didn’t know half of his sandwich and walk away, knowing his generosity would not repaid. I’ve been humbled to accept bus fare from a man who did not want to see me walk back to my office in the rain. Grace in the form of generosity is one of its most beautiful shapes.
On the streets of Skid Row I’ve also learned non-tangible grace, the kind that seems to make even less sense then it’s physical counterpart. I’ve heard stories of forgiveness that put my privileged heart to shame. I’ve seen families reunite after years of hurt and turmoil. And I have been forgiven for my own ignorance, impatience, stubbornness, fear and prejudices. I’ve been looked upon with eyes that see me in a way I often fail to see myself; with love, compassion and understanding that mimics the Father’s in a way that feels so unfair and so unmerited.
On the streets of Skid Row I have learned humility…and how prideful I am. I’ve listened to my own words and eavesdropped on my thoughts only to be appalled by the entitlement that I carry with me. I’ve been humbled by genuine love, trust and care that so many of my friends on Skid Row so freely offer, while I hold back my own, as though they are a prize to be earned and given only to the elite and well deserving.
On the streets of Skid Row I have learned to laugh. I don’t know, maybe it’s something in the water, but the people I have the pleasure of working alongside of have some of the best timing and wit of anyone I know. More often than not I seem to be the punchline, but I have learned that when you are secure and confident in the relationships you’ve made, often times a little teasing can be the most joyful way to tell someone I’ve been listening and I know you. I’ve also learned that sometimes when life sucks, the best way through it is to laugh with the ones who are walking with you.
On the streets of Skid Row I have learned how to grieve. In the six years that I have worked here my heart has been broken more times than I thought possible. I’ve heard countless stories of heartache and abuse, attempting to keep my composure while screaming inside “Why? WHY would someone do this?!” I’ve cried alongside folks in doctor’s offices as they’ve been handed what has felt like a death sentence and I’ve mourned the loss of 18 friends who have passed on. I have spent hours on my knees and even more clinging to the comforting words of my Savior; “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” I don’t always understand these words and I don’t even always trust their truth the way I should, but in those moments when the hands of grief have clutched my heart, I’ve watched God use them to remove their grip and replace them with his own gentle touch.
On the streets of Skid Row I’ve learned joy. Whereas happiness may, I’ve learned that joy does not come from circumstances — joy comes from gratitude, from forgiveness, from love. Joy comes from giving and receiving grace. Joy comes from generosity and peace. And joy can be shared, passed on from one to another by way of a smile. I’ve learned that to be the benefactor and beneficiary of joy is one of the greatest ways we can give to another person.
On the streets of Skid Row I have learned to celebrate. I have learned that there are no such thing as small victories and big victories; rather, there are big victories and bigger victories. Each step forward is one to be commemorated, whether by way of verbal praise, a high five or a piece of cake. Often we are so bogged down and distracted or worse threatened by another’s success that we deny one another praise and encouragement. In the last six years I have learned that one person’s success does not have to be the demise of another’s, when we do it right, one person’s milestone is everyone’s milestone. I’ve learned life is not the competition I once thought it was.
On the streets of Skid Row I’ve learned gratitude. I’ve always strived to do this job with an open hand, believing that it could be taken from me at any time or I may be called away to something different, but today is not that day. No, today is the day I will continue to play the montage through my mind, with gratitude in my heart, knowing I still have so much to learn and that there’s still some empty reel space yet to be filled. And I am thankful for that.