2020: Amidst the Sorrows, God's Faithfulness Abounds
As 2020 began, Prodigal Sons set out, ready to help additional churches pursue their gang neighbors with the love of Christ, and to boost our existing outreach efforts. March hit and all of our bright eyed energy, working towards big goals and plans, came to a halt. With "Safer at Home" orders, all of our regular outreach events stopped. Churches we'd been pursuing were slammed trying to adjust and care for their people. Our best practices, and our 2020 game plan – scrapped. After a few weeks of "Now what?", God gave us an opportunity.
Danny checked in with some of the neighborhood guys and asked if they could use help with groceries during this time. Each responded with a "yes", and food box delivery was born. What started with the men and women Prodigal already had connection to, spread out to a larger, new to us, network of gang neighbors throughout Los Angeles. Texts from guys who'd regularly attended Thursday night basketball for a year – "Could I get a box for my grandma?" – "Could my dad get a box?" – became frequent. Before we knew it, thanks to the generosity of many of you, financial support and food donations poured in. Church members from a handful of our partners joined in for some of the deliveries. To date, 51 different families/individuals have received boxes. These engagements have provided more frequent and deep interactions than any other 'outreach event' in the past, and have spread our connections out to new individuals and new gangs in West LA.
As a ministry that is trusting God for more gang families to know Christ, we are convinced that the work of growing more church families to reach out is far more effective (multiplication) than simply Danny and Brian (addition) reaching out to the homies. With this, we pivoted during the pandemic from swiftly expanding our connections with additional churches, to developing more robust equipping. For members at churches we’re currently connected to, we expect that this equipping will sharpen them for ministry and love towards gang neighbors in their areas. As this program more fully develops over time, we can provide more value to these and future churches and be more effective at equipping others for outreach.
While we are hopeful for the future of God’s work through Prodigal, and testify that he has faithfully used the trials of this pandemic for good, we acknowledge that the sufferings of this year for those we seek to serve have been and continue to be overwhelming. Personally, we know half a dozen families who have been personally affected by COVID-19, and one who lost family members. The effects of the pandemic - health wise, financially, educationally, have deeply hit the communities we’re reaching out to. Aside from the pandemic, this year alone in the city of Los Angeles, over 300 men and women have been murdered, and over 630 in the county. Gang violence is peaking, and the continued shutdowns seem to heap on the pressures that lead to many of the contributors to gang expansion and violence.
As men of faith in a God who is faithful, we celebrate while lamenting. Mourning the loss of so many lives in our cities to gang related causes. Sorrowful over the kids who lost moms and dads, moms and dads who’ve lost sons and daughters. Numerous and untold injustices and hopelessness. We hope, we mourn, and we pray. We pray for God’s continued work. For his good news to reach into the hood through loving churches. We thank you for your consistent support this year - your prayers for us, the ministry, those we seek to serve - your financial gifts to support us, the ongoing work, and the special needs that have arisen - your words of encouragement and action steps of engagement. We thank God for you. As the year closes, please continue to hope with us, to pray with us, to mourn with us, and to look to Christ with us for more of his glory to be seen in 2021.
With You in Christ,
Danny and Brian
Since the summer of 2015 I (Brian) have lived in neighborhoods of Los Angeles that are “gang infested”. While this label simplifies the array of qualities in a neighborhood into a “problem area”, it does highlight the reality of gang violence in LA. 6 weeks ago I moved from the neighborhood of Historic South Central, 80 blocks south to the community of Westmont. Within the past few weeks of living here, 6 people have died as a result of gang violence or officer involved shootings within a mile of my house. It seems that everyday news breaks of another shooting.
I must confess – while I know the proper “love your neighbor” response looks like praying for the community, seeking to know and care for affected families, etc.– my default posture is to focus on myself, my world, and my plans; unaffected by the grief, trauma, and fear that weighs on my neighbors. The news of the trauma becomes background noise to the foreground of my life.
While the priorities of my life are not solely “me focused”, the gap between Christ’s call to “love our neighbors/city as ourselves” and my functional lack of compassion towards these neighbors and city gives me pause. Why does this default come so easily? What is the Biblical call here? How can I faithfully pursue loving the community in these tragedies? What would it look like to turn up the volume on the background noise and, like our Savior, hear people and be moved to compassion by their pain?
What Brian shares here is helpful and revealing for most of us. He gives a snapshot into his community where violence is so common it starts becoming “background noise”. People feel numb and even disengaged because of the normalcy of violence in these areas. But Brian’s story isn’t just unique to South L.A. It’s affecting many other communities as well.
Recent news stories report on the uptick in violence throughout Los Angeles. Shootings and homicide numbers are up this year — many people are getting shot and killed. Two weeks ago an LA news station covered a 3-4 day span where 50 people were shot, with more than a dozen of these murdered. Teenagers, 20-somethings, and random victims have been shot and killed. These past few weeks and months have been overwhelmingly crazy and hard, but as Brian brought up – where does compassion and intentionality fit in when all this doesn’t have to affect you personally? Is our city’s pain and trauma just background noise?
When we hear about these stories and what’s taking place throughout L.A., there are two directions we can go. One, is to see/hear all this and be disengaged, to the point where it is out of sight and out of mind . Actually, we might be so disengaged that we don’t even know this is going on in our city! We talk about elections, we talk sports, we know all those topics of conversations yet have zero knowledge of how much trauma parts of our city are dealing with.
A second response is to pray, lament, and go to God on behalf of our city. He is the source of hope even when it seems like violence will never stop. He is the source of comfort even when it seems the pain of losing someone is too much. God is who we go to on behalf of Los Angeles. We don’t have to live in these areas to know what’s going on and seek to be engaged. We can develop compassion and love for our city. Engagement can look like praying or being intentional to know neighbors more, especially if you do live in communities being affected by violence. Maybe there are opportunities to bless families during tragedies. Maybe engagement involves simply being more intentional to see what’s taking place throughout the city. You may not be able to wrap your arms around someone as they cry over losing a loved one but you can care enough to know and pray for them and their community.
I (Danny) often hear the phrase “we/I love our city”. It’s even kind of a Christian buzzword “to love the city we’re in”. While we absolutely should love Los Angeles, really think about what that means to you. Does that mean only loving the cool neighborhood you live in? Does it mean loving the comfort that perhaps your community might bring with it? Does it mean just loving local sports teams or your favorite restaurants? Growing up in L.A., I didn’t stay in a part of town like Brian’s current residence. But I knew a lot of people affected by violence and trauma. And it wasn’t just in the South LA’s or East LA’s. It was places like The Valley, The Westside, The South Bay. I knew that what affected some of the toughest parts of our city also affected other communities too. We can say we love our city but do we love it enough to at least know what’s taking place throughout and praying for it.
I appreciate Brian’s thoughts and questions. His vulnerability to share that even as a resident of one of these traumatized communities, it’s difficult for him to turn up the volume on the background noise. But I think the call here is to know, to care, to love, to be intentional; to not turn down the switch but perhaps make that noise more loud and clear. Loving our city, loving our neighbors means we should try to learn what’s affecting the communities and city we love. We can continue to pray for things around the country and around the world but don’t forget to offer prayers up for what is happening locally. God is pushing us towards intentional engagement and it might look different across the board depending where you live. It might be knowing and praying, it might be coming alongside and connecting with a neighbor when the violence and pain touches down in your area. Love Los Angeles beyond the convenience you find in it. Love Los Angeles because God knows, loves and cares about it.
As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me.
COVID-19 has impacted virtually every aspect of our lives. At the beginning of March, Daniel, our CEO was sick and, though untested for the virus, stayed in isolation for two weeks. He has recovered and is doing well, and is adjusting to life under "Safer at Home" orders. Brian, our Partnership Development Director, welcomed a son into the world at the end of February, and then all of this hit. He's enjoying time with the new baby, and the time with his 3 other children at home. Both Daniel and Brian are continuing to work together virtually during this most wild time.
It seems like the difficulty and uncertainty grow with each day in these times, but one thing we hold to is that God does not change. He is sovereign. He is good loving always, and that doesn't change during times like this. We can have confidence that He knows our every need (Luke 12:30). And so, we pray. A lot.
We continue to pray for those around the globe affected by this pandemic, and particularly those in our own communities. As Prodigal Sons Inc., we are trying to settle into a new transition for the next few weeks/months. We ask that you continue praying for us and for the ministry. A few specific requests to pray for are:
Gang culture in particular seems so far removed from our experience that the idea of bridging that gap in any kind of meaningful way seems impossible. And while you may not be able to understand everything about that person’s experience, there’s a good chance that you’re able to understand something.
It was a weird time for me. My mother had passed away in May 2017, and I was shocked every time I realized that I would never see her again. It still shocks me to this day. In the days and weeks immediately after her passing, there was a strange sensation as I lived my life day-to-day. It was like I was living in a cloud, some weird alternate universe that looked like my life but was missing a key part of it. How did everything else in the world just keep on going like nothing had ever happened? It didn’t feel right somehow, but nevertheless you have to keep on going with groceries and bills and work all of those things that don’t wait up when personal hardships happen.
Less than two weeks after my mom died, I got an email from my friend Danny, sharing a heartbreaking story of a man who had recently died in a car accident. The man wasn’t much older than me, and he left behind a young daughter. His sister and the family were holding a car wash at the church to raise money for the funeral. I instantly thought back to being at the hospital, my family’s grief, and all of the stress of funeral arrangements, and my heart went out to this family. There had been fundraising car washes at the church before, but with my mom’s death so fresh on my mind contributing to this one was of deep importance to me. Though I didn’t know this family personally, I understood in a realistic way what they were going through. This time when I went, I wouldn’t just be sympathizing with loss, I’d be empathizing with it.
I pulled up to the car wash early and a few cars were there as things started to get rolling for the day. I got out of the car and said "hi" to Danny, who shared his condolences for my mom and thanked me for coming. He always made it a point at the car washes to give a quick lay of the land and point out the family members and friends of the deceased, to give context to who was there and why. He gestured to a young woman over at the entrance to the parking lot, mentioning that she was the deceased man’s sister. She looked about my age, with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and a big sign in her hands that she held up high trying to bring people in to the car wash.
I knew in my heart that I wanted to talk to her specifically. I wanted her to know that I had lost someone, too, that I knew how much it hurt, and that I was so sorry for her loss. I was sure that she had received so many condolences lately that those of a stranger might not mean much in the grand scheme of things. Still, it seemed important to say.
I walked up to her and she lowered her big sign as she noticed me approaching. I gave her a modest smile and said, “Hi, I’m Ashley. I lost my mom a few weeks ago, and I just wanted to say…”
I hadn’t even finished my sentence before she set her sign on the ground and threw her arms around me. She hugged me like we were old friends, and we embraced for a moment without saying a word. All we knew were each other’s first names, and that we had shared pain from a deep loss. That was all it took. She knew that I needed that hug as much as she did. When we came apart, she was first to speak to express condolences for my mom. I thanked her, told her I was so sorry for her loss, and that I would be praying for her. She said she appreciated it, and just like that someone called to me to let me know that my car was finished. She picked up her sign and went back to the parking lot entrance, eager to wave her hands and bring more people in.
At the time, I was still in that inconvenient frazzled brain fog that hangs over you after traumatic events. I didn’t think to get her phone number or anything, some way of contacting her to offer to talk more. It would have been so great to have a conversation with her about life and Jesus and the eternal hope that he offers, and the removal of the sting of death that comes with His victory. In retrospect though, I know I couldn’t have had that conversation anyway. My mind wasn’t in a place to be able to hold long conversations period, let alone eloquently share the gospel.
I thought back to that verse in 2 Corinthians 1: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Though that verse does speak to sharing the hope of the gospel, I don’t think it means less than sharing a hug. Than sharing a smile. Than sharing that you’re not alone in your pain, that I see you and you matter to me, and that you and your pain matter to God, too.
Sometimes we see people in our community enduring hardships that are so unlike our own. Gang culture in particular seems so far removed from our experience that the idea of bridging that gap in any kind of meaningful way seems impossible. And while you may not be able to understand everything about that person’s experience, there’s a good chance that you’re able to understand something. Financial hardships, trials in parenting, loss of loved ones - these things transcend lifestyles for many of us. With open eyes and open hearts, making connections and giving comfort do not have to be as complicated as we might think. When we put personal connection first, the bridge to cross the gap becomes much more navigable. May we see those bridges and walk across them, however briefly or imperfectly.
Ashley Ross is a member of Cornerstone Church West LA. Ashley is the Instructional Design and Training Manager for Ylopo, LLC, a Santa Monica based marketing platform. She and her husband Dave enjoy time together eating homemade bread.