Monday, December 19, 2011

Getting Down to Business

After all of our weekend fun, we started with some serious mission projects Monday morning, bright and early at 5:30 a.m. at "Midnight Mission". It's a community center on Skid Row that provides breakfast for anyone in need. We put on gloves and aprons, got behind the counter, and served up food for more than 700 men and women, mostly adults, of all ethnicities. It was the fastest, most efficient breakfast I've ever experienced, with all of them coming through line, eating, and leaving the dining room within about an hour.

After cleaning up there, we headed to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and sat through an orientation session with the 40+ other teenagers that were there to volunteer from other schools. Then they sent us to a large room where we were to sort huge boxes of food that had been donated by local grocery stores and people with kind hearts and huge wallets. We were given directions and, suddenly, the whole room swarmed with people running from the fridge, to the pantry, to sorting out meat, to weighing trash cans of the expired food that we had to throw out. All of a sudden, all of these strangers became one big team.

We got back to the CSM building for lunch and, apparently, some found more important things to do...

In the afternoon, we headed out to Wyvernwood Apartments again to hang out with the kids. We played soccer, (while reminding them NOT to say certain words), more freeze tag, ("without pushing guys!!"), and some follow-the-leader...("where did you learn to do THAT??") We wonder what kinds of lifestyles they go home to, among older siblings and parents gone to work. The guys are a tougher group than expected for 9-12 year olds, but the girls are sweet, and all of them are starting to warm up to us...

Jasmine with puppy on left, our host Sarah in the middle,
and some of the younger set of kids
We ended the day on Chinese food at Jade Wok, a cute, little restaurant nearby, and came home to debrief about the day's events and engage in our new group hobby, listening to and critiquing songs from The Sing-Off.  =)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Chilling in L.A.

Hey there, Jasmine Pagaduan here to bring everyone a new perspective to our adventures in Los Angeles! Quiet but witty, I'm the kind of person to silently tail the others and simply observe. I'm going to cut my intro short, since Rebecca seemed to have summed me up quite well in our first day blog. So let's get this started shall we?

Our day started just like yesterday: a six a.m. wake up call to attend the first service with the West Angeles Church of God in Christ lead by Bishop Blake. Following our frenzy to get ready, we arrived at the main campus of their church and were blown away by its beauty. As Amy put it, "It's like straight out of a movie!" And indeed it was: as we walked into the lobby of the grand church, it's massive size alone blew me away. Growing up in small towns like Victorville and Lompoc (if you have never heard of these towns, that is how small they are), I've always been accustomed to small churches, so a grandeur sight like this was most definitely a step out of my comfort zone.

Shortly after recuperating from the size of the lobby, I followed the others into the main sanctuary where I was taken aback yet again! The sanctuary housed a floor with a guesstimate of thirty-or-so rows of movie theatre seats while there was a balcony above them with ten-plus rows. The front of the stage was a huge stage that was fully capable of holding a drummer, two keyboardists, a guitarist, bassist and a massive choir that I was so sure could rival the size of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City. My mind was having an over overload, trying to process the astounding size and beauty of this place.

As the service began, I started to pay attention to how the congregation behaved during song service: dancing with a vigorous enthusiasm, the members joyously sang along with the mass choir, some of them even brought tambourines to jingle along to the beat. There were so many traits within these people that really threw me through a loop: energetic, very welcoming, enthusiastic. I suppose I can say that it was all just too much for little me to take in. Nevertheless, the experience was certainly one that I will not forget any time soon and I don't think the others will forget it either.

After church, we came back to our warehouse for a change of clothes in preparation for our City Search: a scavenger hunt game that included interviews with an L.A. native, a tourist and a homeless person, job searches, the prices for apartments, and the list can go on and on. Being in the middle of downtown L.A., we knew we had to make this a real adventure for all of us and what better way to do that than act out the scenarios our checklist gave us?

However before we could even start on that, we bumped into two homeless men and entered a rather fascinating conversation with them. Both of them stated that the system was making sure they could not acquire an apartment of any kind through methods such as paperwork, TB testing, and waiting lists. In personal opinion, I did not find this such a heavy burden though considering the fact that they were in a sort of "the sooner we have a home, the better" situation, I really could not blame them. They also voiced their loathing of the corrupt officers in the LAPD, stating that they caught them for some of the most trivial violations. This was such a strange statement to hear, especially after listening to Sarah's comments about the LAPD playing a game of basketball with the homeless which was apparently a "front" to the two men we talked to. The conversation with these two really left me thinking: who is right? Who is wrong? Is it the homeless fault for not being able to meet society's standards to survive properly? Or was it society's for not providing sympathy and helping those in need like the churches, missions, and other charities? Evidently as Rebecca put it, there are a lot of "gray areas," which means there are not a lot of clear answers and that fact alone is perhaps the most painful one to embrace because we cannot figure out how to solve this issue without a definite solution.

Well, on a lighter note, our quests in the City Search had suddenly transformed into a mission of espionage as we eagerly assigned each other the various tasks in our list, one scenario in particular became a favorite among us all: a very eager Amy dragging an equally reluctant Gatra into a relationship to discover the cost of an engagement ring.

Following our "lovebirds" into the jewelry shop, I watched the two discuss about the ring with dear Gatra being straight-forward and simply asking, "What's your cheapest ring?" Meanwhile our lucky lady, was detailing about the type of ring she wanted. It did not take long for the reluctant bachelor to be pulled aside and after some calculations with the jeweler, was given a business card with his cell phone number to talk about a cheaper ring at another time when Amy was not around.

By this time, Rebecca and Justin had entered the shop and were being pulled into a misadventure of their own: in a desperate effort to look normal, Rebecca started to conjure up a tale that she and Justin were searching for a gift for Justin's mother. Before either of them knew, they were being presented with two watches that were at least $1200. Desperate to escape her web of high tales, our leader was able to jump ship by suggesting that Justin call his father for a confirmation and that they would be back some other time and in haste left the premises of the shop with me in tow while Gatra and Amy followed us shortly after. Engagement ring query: success! Effort to look normal: fail. 

After an afternoon of laughs and giggles, as well as a lunch with a man in need, we ended our day at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where shops were closing, and street performers and artists (including an anime portrait artist!) were out ready to earn profits of their own. During our time there, we witnessed an amazing trio of performers: a 70-year-old dancer, an amazing soprano saxaphone player, and a tap-dancing trumpet player. It was quite a day! I'll look forward to whatever is in store for tomorrow...  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Turkey breakfast, Bingo, and Freeze Tag

     Ugh...just a couple more minutes...I grabbed my cell phone to hit snooze, only to realize that it was 6:40 a.m. Oh no! We have to leave at 7! I jumped out of my sleeping bag, stumbling over a couple of duffle bags in the dark on my way to wake up the other girls.
     "Hey! Psstt...ladies! Wake up! You guys wanted to shower, remember??"
      Seventeen minutes later, we were showered, dressed, and ready to go. Phew! We joined the guys and piled into the car to drive to Faith in Christ Ministries, where we would help prepare breakfast for 40-50 people and sack lunches for another 150. Pastor Joe and his wife, Gwen, were our hosts and they immediately put us to work making coffee, frying potatoes, making turkey gravy and slicing onions for...breakfast...
     It actually turned out to be really good. We set up tables all along the side of the church's community center and brought a plate out to each one, sitting down to eat with them and getting to know some of the people who visit Faith in Christ ministries every Saturday morning. 
     After cleaning up and helping out with a few more things at the church, we said goodbye to the Pastor and his wife and headed over to Grandview Retirement Hotel, a local nursing home, for the second part of our morning. 
     The folks at Grandview enjoy younger people coming to visit them once in awhile, and one of their favorite games is usually Bingo. We brought some little prizes for them, (candy, soap, picture frames, perfume/cologne, chapstick, etc.), and got started calling the numbers! Or, I should say, Gatra got started calling the numbers. Amy sorted the numbers, and Jasmine, Justin, and I spread out to play with them at different tables. 

     Gatra began to lose his voice, and I was too impatient to wait long enough to win, so we switched places and I tried my hand at number-calling. It was fun to see how excited they got when calling out Bingo! I got a Bingo!!
Left to Right: Jasmine Pagaduan, our host Sarah, Amy Rudra, Gatra Suhari, and Justin Tuot. 

     By the time we were done, we were super hungry and just HAD to stop by McDonald's for hot fudge sundaes...of course. We did get healthy food when we got back to CSM, though, along with about an hour of chill time before our next assignment. We spent it singing silly songs and reflecting on what we'd done throughout the morning. 
     Wyvernwood Garden Apartments is on the nicer side of the complexes we've seen around here, and it's mostly full of hispanic families with kids running around everywhere. For the next two hours, we played soccer and freeze tag with them, trying to hide the huffing and puffing of college students who've forgotten how intense a playground obstacle course can be...

     When we all stopped for a water break, one of the four-year-olds, Diego, decided to teach us how to "shuffle". It was the cutest thing ever! We told them we had to go, but that we'd be back several more times throughout the week to continue our games together.
     On our way to dinner, we made a quick detour to Griffith Park Observatory, which some of us had never seen before. It was gorgeous! We got there just as the sun was setting over the L.A. skyline and all of the city lights started flickering on. The group may or may not have had to tear me away from the view in the interest of food... 
     Dinner was at "Zankou Chicken", an Armenian spot on the way home. The meat on a spit and salty yogurt drinks reminded Justin and I of our food experiences while visiting Turkey with the Honors Program. We all had a satisfying meal full of pita, falafels, hummus and garlic paste, (and the rest of our conversations tonight were held at a healthy distance away). 
     The rest of the evening has been spent in the general living room area, relaxing, writing, and singing with Gatra's guitar and Justin's ukelele. Hopefully, we'll get to sleep a little earlier tonight, so that we won't have to begin tomorrow the way we began today...



Friday, December 16, 2011

The Adventure Begins...

     After three hours of good ol' Southern California Friday afternoon traffic, we finally arrived at CSM (Center for Student Missions), where we will be staying for the next week. Quite a different scene than what we're used to back home! The center is a little building by the Metro train tracks, across from Pueblo del Rio housing apartments, one of the largest housing projects in the nation. Your senses are bombarded as soon as you step out of the car...Eminem's rap lyrics boom from the next street over, the air smells of onion, garlic, and cooked meat, and the dirty streets are littered with tents, grocery carts, and boxes...blanket-covered legs sticking out the end.
     The five of us piled out of the car, much better acquainted after the extended trip. Gatra Suhari is from Indonesia and is majoring in religious studies. He's loves food and involves it in his every conversation. Justin Tuot is quiet, but thoughtful and humorous when he does speak. He's Cambodian. Amy Rudra is Indian and an excellent car mechanic, who often has to earn her place in a male-dominated profession. She took 36 credits per quarter to finish her major in a year and a half. Jasmine Pagaduan interprets life through drawing, is a freshman doing pre-nursing and is, in her words, "a proud Filipino!" 
     I already feel it's going to be a fun trip.
    After some debriefing, and going over the week's guidelines and schedule we head out to dinner! (Much to Gatra's excitement especially.) Tonight's menu is food from Honduras at "Honduran Kitchen", a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Each meal had the name of a day of the week, and everyone seemed quite satisfied with their "Monday" through "Fridays" ranging from Arroz con Pollo to Beef Stew, little vegetarian rice and beans with excellent tortillas.

     After dinner, our host from CSM, Sarah Zirbes, took us around the city on a "Prayer Tour". The purpose of the Prayer Tour was to orient us to Los Angeles with its different districts and cultures, while praying together over the city and all of the issues that its people face. We were shocked to find out about the rates of gang involvement for children as young as 8 years old, and the cultural tensions that are still very much present among all races, so much so that train tracks have to separate them. However, we were encouraged by pockets of hope around the city, such as the Charter school "Synergy", educating children out of gangs and making terrific educational leaps among the children of the most poor. Or such as the missions that dot every street in the vicinity of skid row. 
     On the way home, the last part of the tour was called "Snapshots", the things that impacted us the most about the tour. We mentioned the faces we'd seen on Skid Row, cramped together on a sidewalk, as well as the acute dichotomy between this poverty and the venue for The Grammys, three streets over.
      After finally arriving back in the gated confines of our home site, Sarah asked us to lie on the concrete in the CSM parking lot and take a minute to reflect on what we'd seen. We...hesitantly...scouted out the cleanest spot possible and followed her instructions, lowering ourselves down to the cold concrete and carefully setting our heads on the hard floor. 
    This is weird, I thought. How long do we have to lay like this? 
    I began to think of the people who do this every night. I shivered a little, missing my soft, Ikea bed at home.  Man, what a sad, messy, complicated, issue-this homelessness thing, I felt despairingly. I looked up at the sky and, through the clouds saw a couple of stars. Not many, but just a few. Just enough to make me feel as if God was still present in this city. I felt a weird peace, lying on that cold concrete, weirdly satisfied at the thought that, even in L.A., there were stars. Like pockets of hope in a dark, cloudy sky.