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Park Rapids Calvary youth take mission of faith to Hollywood

Calvary Lutheran youth Rilee Johnson, Taylor Graham and Seri Erickson pray with a man living on the streets of Skid Row. (Submitted photo)

Homeless in Hollywood?

The idea seemed ludicrous to the Calvary Lutheran youth poised for a mission trip to the city known for its "glitz and glamour."

And some of the parishioners were reluctant to support the endeavor.

"But there are a lot of hurting people there," Megan Norby said of what she and her cohorts discovered in July.

Driving from the airport, awed by grandeur of the city, they spotted a girl on the street who, they would learn, is pregnant and homeless.

"She reminded us of why we came," Norby said.

"If we look in faith, you may see God's face in the eyes of another - a man at a soup kitchen, an elderly woman living on the streets, a teenager panhandling to buy basic hygiene necessities, a child exiled to a homeless shelter," Calvary's director of youth and education Dana Kocka explained.

DOOR - Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection - helps groups see the face of God in the city by serving in community-based ministries and reflecting on the message of the Psalmist: "God is in the midst of the city," Psalm 46:5, Kocka said.

A panel discussion by four homeless people at the trip's beginning "opened our eyes," Sarah Schultz said of how "life threw the situation at them."

One of the homeless told the students she'd experienced "a life too perfect" to handle the situation she found herself in. "I never thought this could happen."

"It's difficult for them to ask for things," Jill Simpson said, which was contrary to what they expected.

"They were smart," Schultz said. "One had a PhD. They were not bums on the street."

They spoke with a homeless woman from Sweden who was married to an abusive man. When she left him, she learned her immigration status made her ineligible for benefits. And she has no family for support.

"This can happen to anyone," Norby said.

The students were initially surprised by the number of homeless with dogs, considering the cost of food.

"Dogs keep them safe," they quickly ascertained.

"It started to gel," Kocka said of the intro to Skid Row. "Their eyes were opened."

"We saw them through God's eyes," Jeni Simpson said.

'Tremendously uplifting'

"God is alive and transparent within the city and DOOR plays an active role in showing Christ every day," Kocka counseled the kids.

DOOR is a faith-based network of six cities that provides opportunities for service, learning and leadership development within the urban context.

DOOR organized all of the group's service projects throughout the entire week. "They were incredible to work with because they truly lead by example and are hands on with their ministry," Kocka said.

The Park Rapids volunteers experienced service "to the full extent and in all aspects."

The students worked behind the scenes (sorting food for the LA Food Bank) and on the front lines, face to face with homeless.

It's comparable to a Third World country, the group meeting after the trip concurred. Urine and feces on the street is a common sight. They witnessed about 50 people sleeping on a sidewalk, next to their shopping carts.

Babies and young children with their homeless mothers, people in wheelchairs "and someone on Hollywood Boulevard with no hands" remain vivid memories for the travelers.

"But on Skid Row, people in the worst situations told us we brought joy to their day," Norby said. "They smiled.

"It was tremendously uplifting," Schultz said. "We thought they'd be rude," Jill Simpson said. "But they were so thankful. They said it feels like Christmas."

"Some were quiet, reserved; others were outgoing," Schultz observed.

"Several liked to talk politics," Norby said, grinning.

One asked if they would pray with them, the teens happily obliging.

As a means to impart an understanding of the indigent experience, teens were split into groups of five, each given a dollar. With $5, the mission was to come up with dinner.

Some went out to ask for assistance, experiencing the "fear, embarrassment and shame" of those on the street.

Others headed to the grocery store to learn just what $5 buys.

Another group dug in garbage dumpsters for cans and bottles to exchange for nickels and dimes, only to learn it was a five-mile journey to redeem them.

"Homeless aren't lazy; it takes work," Kelsey Adolphson observed.

"It's one meal at a time," Norby said. "Not even one day at a time."

And the homeless deal with societal fear and repulsion, they learned. Shopping carts, for example, are not allowed at the recycling depot, because people fear - and shun - the homeless.

The experience, Schultz said, "broke the stereotypes, opened our eyes. We're less judgmental."

"And happy to have a bed to sleep in," Jill Simpson added. "We began to realize what's happening in our own country."

"We became closer to God," Jeni Simpson added.

"And we can use the experience here," Adolphson said.

"You don't have to leave to be on a mission trip," Kocka concurred. "You can help right here in the community."

"It was inspiring to see the faith the homeless have, to follow their dreams, Schultz said. "We were crying and hugging. It was humbling to be comforted by people you think you are comforting."

"God definitely works in mysterious ways," Norby said. "Everything has a reason. Some good will come. Life will change. It definitely happened to us."

Seeing via Christ's eyes

At the end of the mission trip, the students had two days to experience Los Angeles, but the youth chose to continue serving. They collected an offering and purchased basic hygiene necessities to hand out to the homeless.

"The youth amazed me with their generosity," Kocka said of the items they purchased for distribution. "We as a group had decided to give our sleeping bags and pillows away. Some went even further, giving away their clothes, shoes, socks etc...

"Christ was so alive within this mission trip and it is my hope and prayer that they can continue to let Christ's light shine in and through them everyday," Kocka said.

"God really opened our eyes while serving the people of California. We left Park Rapids with compassionate hearts, serving hands, encouraging words and feet eager to follow Christ's example.

"We experienced a city that wears a mask, a mask that truly hides the many issues that lie deep within. We never realized the vast amount of people living on the streets. We were deeply saddened and touched. We heard their stories and God began to break down our stereotypes and fears. We began to view these people as our neighbors.

"Most importantly we began to see with Christ's eyes and we began to serve with Christ's hands. We are excited to share our experiences with the entire church on Rally Sunday, Sept. 11," the youth leader said.

Students attending were Seri Erickson, Nikky Pederson, Alex Pederson, Rilee Johnson, Sara Bugge, Nate Carlson, Taylor Graham, Grace Bateman, Steven Osterman, Connor Smythe, Megan Norby, Johnny Bravo, Sarah Schultz, Kelsey Adolphson, Spencer Adolphson, Jeni Simpson, Jill Simpson, Eryn Simpson, Cole Tretbar, Heidi Schaum and Linda Schaum.