“You want to do what? For who? You have got to be kidding!” I shook my head in shock and disbelief.
“Yes, honey,” I heard my husband Stan’s determined voice on the other end of the phone. “I think I am going to take the directorship of a ranch for men from Skid Row L.A.”
I gasped for breath. “Are you sure?” I couldn’t imagine moving from a middle-class suburb to work with men from Skid Row L.A., one of the worst slum areas of Los Angeles.
We lived in Colorado Springs at the time. In the early ‘80s, we opened and ran two inspirational gift shops called the “Love Shop.” Every day, I came to our stores with a sense of purpose and joy. The two stores prospered.
In 1989, however, tragedy crept up and stole our prosperity, our security, and my health. What was that thief? It was the economic ravages created by the oil crisis. The devastation affected many oil-related states, including Colorado.
Our sales plummeted because people lost their jobs. With crushed spirits, we struggled to pay our bills. My body crashed, throwing me into an upheaval of constant flu-like symptoms diagnosed as “chronic fatigue syndrome.” Though I was sick, I dragged myself to work every day, determined to hold on to our vision of love expressed through the stores.
After six months of rapidly decreasing sales, my husband gave up on the recovery of the stores. The crisis plunged Stan into intense soul searching. One day in church, he sensed a call on his life to fulfill a desire in his heart to help the poor.
Then he received a call from his friend, John, inviting him to visit California. While Stan was there, John introduced him to the Union Rescue Mission and the opportunity to be the director of Green Oak Ranch, a satellite rehabilitation program in Vista, CA, near San Diego.
The Mission selected forty hardcore addicted men from Skid Row L.A. to go to a ranch, removing them from the temptations they faced in L.A. The recovery program reflected God’s heart of mercy for the men to give them yet another chance. The vision for this program combined the Twelve-Step Program, Bible Studies, and psychological counseling with help in reading skills and job training. The men worked at the Ranch and learned new job skills during their stay.
As Stan considered the opportunity, he sensed this mission was for him. Terrified because of Skid Row L.A.’s reputation, I felt unprepared to deal with this kind of challenge. Despite my protests, he went out to California. We had closed one store, and I stayed for four months to sell the other.
The four months gave me time to process the change. I shared my reluctance to give up the dream of the stores’ recovery with a wise neighbor. “Well, you may lose the stores but you’ll have a better marriage if you go along with him.” He advised me.
Another friend reassured me, “It’s okay to struggle with God’s will. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggled to the point of shedding blood.”
After selling the second store, I reluctantly joined my husband. I felt ill at ease and out of place as my husband introduced me to the men in the communal dining room.
After a few days, the boundaries and accountability at the ranch eased my fears and I began talking with the men. My stereotypical attitudes gradually changed. I met former professionals and businessmen ensnared by addiction. There was an engineer, a Jewish salesman, and a mid-level government worker seduced by cocaine’s highs and now, lows.
A tough L.A. gang leader, well trained in the street for ways of intimidation and manipulation, had a tender side. When he was sober and content, his smile and laughter filled the hearts of those around him.
Even the ones most people call bums had stories explaining their behavior. One man, stricken with grief over the death of his wife and six-year-old daughter, started drinking. After twenty years, he learned to express his feelings of grief instead of escaping his pain through alcohol. These men changed my attitudes about Skid Row L.A. bums.
I realized they were in this condition because they never had a healthy, loving environment. The ranch provided a place to heal. We gave what we had of our knowledge, support, and counsel to provide these men with strength—the strength they needed to make positive changes in their lives.
The staff, volunteers, and the men ate together in a communal dining room. I listened to the men talk about their failures and wounds from childhood abuse and neglect. Soon I saw each man as a treasure hidden from society by the dirt and grime of addiction and crime. Everyone possessed unique and delightful gifts to contribute to others. We expressed our belief in their potential to make better choices. I watched their hardened hearts soften as we helped them process their grief and taught them new ways to think and behave.
As they shared their hearts and love with me, I too experienced healing. They were honest and open as they talked about their pain. From them, I gained permission to be “real” and to talk about my feelings of loss and pain. I witnessed God’s mercy toward the men expressed through us, and I began to have a greater understanding of His mercy to me. This revelation began to heal my emotions and physical health. Who would have thought I would discover hidden treasure and secrets to my own healing as I related to men from Skid Row, L.A.?
I learned in a deeper way that as you reach out to meet the needs of others, you receive as much as you give. I “lost my life” to leave a store I loved and venture out from the safe fortress of the suburbs into the unsavory jungle of the slum world. As I risked giving from my heart, I found new life and the giving healed my heart.
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39
This story was published in 2006 in Grace Givers: Amazing Stories of Grace in Action by Dr. David Jeremiah