Resilience. That would be the word I would use if I were to describe in one word the main characteristic of children here in Los Angeles, especially those who find themselves in a situation outside of their control on Skid Row.
A little background. The children who end up on Skid Row usually do so because they follow their parents into the "promised land" from some Latin American country, looking for a new life filled with at least the promise of opportunity. However, gaining citizenship in the country is getting more difficult, and desperation runs high. The parents come into the country illegally, not knowing the language very well, and end up getting taken advantage of by one of the 4,000 illegal sweatshops that run virtually undetected in the city of Los Angeles. The sweatshops don't pay nearly enough, so the families are forced to check in to run down hotels in Skid Row, or simply sleep on the streets. During the day, the kids are taken to school as early as 7am at 9th Street Elementary, where underpaid teachers try their best to communicate with children who are having a difficult enough time living in their surroundings, much less learn a language that is completely foreign. Then at night they are forced back out into the streets where they are susceptible to drugs, violence, abuse and neglect.
The children know where they live. They're not dumb. Just a month ago, some gang members shot an immigrant street vendor near MacArthur Park because he refused to pay them "rent." The vendor survived, but the month-old baby who was caught in the cross-fire did not. Adults weren't the only ones who heard that horrible news.
And yet, I have the chance to play with these kids on a regular basis at Las Familias Del Pueblo, an after-school program for many of the kids at 9th Street Elementary. And the overwhelming sense I get from these kids is that, despite their surroundings, despite the fact that most of them sadly have not been given much of a chance, they haven't lost their joy or their hope. They know at a very young age that it is likely they will end up dead before they reach high school, and that if they do get through high school, they won't be able to afford college. But every time I walk in there, that doesn't matter to them. They just want to play, because sometimes playing is the only thing you can do. As they jump all over me, playing tag and wanting piggy-back rides, I admire their resilience, and in a sense, their bravery. I am not convinced I would survive one day in what they have known their whole lives.
All of this makes me think of a popular story in the Gospel of John. Jesus is talking to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, and he says that unless someone is born again, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus is confused, wondering how a man can re-enter a mother's womb. Jesus corrects him and points out that one must be born from above in order to experience the Kingdom. Now, many, including myself, conclude that this means that we need to accept Jesus as our saviour - as the only way for us to see the Father and have true, unending life. But I think Jesus is at more than just what we see. I think Jesus really wants us to become childlike again (he makes many references child likeness being synonymous with the Kingdom quality of life). I think what he wants us to do is unlearn all of the crap that we carry around with us and simply grab on to joy and hope. He wants us to forget about all the reasons why we shouldn't be joyful or why we shouldn't have hope. He wants us to be like those children of 9th Street Elementary, jumping on some strangers back, simply because playing is the most important thing one can do.
As I reflect on my past month here in LA, noticing all the things in this city that go horribly wrong, I desperately need to learn to play. I need it for my heart, my soul and for my faith. Hopefully I can learn a thing or two from some of these angels at 9th Street. They have already taught me a lot.
-Dave, CSM LA 2007 Fall City Host
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