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Lessons from Skid Row

On day one I stepped out of my car just before the police arrived with their bullhorns and ushered patrons to pack up their homes. I yelped as a rat scurried across my shoe, but no one seemed to notice. I began to pray under my breath. Lord, I believe you brought me to Skid Row, but I am not entirely certain I can do this…you’re sure you know what you’re doing, right?

I haven’t been the same since that day. I’ve been better, I think. Skid Row changed me.

But this change didn’t come without a cost. I remember the day a man threw a chair at my head in anger and, years later, feeling that my life might end with the shot of a bullet. I remember each harrowing story of loss and pain that drove my new friends to the streets. I remember the faces of all 17 men and women we lost in the seven-and-a-half years I spent in the Skid Row community.

Those moments and many others marked me. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that for each moment of difficulty there were many more moments of triumph and growth.

During my time on Skid Row I learned the meaning of grace. I heard stories of forgiveness that put my privileged heart to shame. I saw families reunited after years of hurt and turmoil. I was pardoned for my own ignorance, impatience, stubbornness, fear, and prejudice. I was looked upon with eyes that saw me in a way I often fail to see myself: with love, compassion, and understanding that mimics the Father’s.

This grace I experienced often took on tangible forms. It looked like one woman caring for another as they slept side by side on the cold sidewalk, and a hungry man handing a stranger half of his sandwich. I experienced tangible grace when a homeless man paid my bus fare so I didn’t have to walk back to my office in the rain.

The grace I found on Skid Row taught me that I am not absolved from extending the same grace to others. We are called to give without repayment even at the risk of being taken advantage of. In Matthew 5:42 Jesus implores his listeners to give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. What does this mean? I think it can be as simple as giving money to a stranger without questioning his or her motives. It can mean offering dignity through a smile and conversation to someone who might otherwise be ignored on a bustling street.

Extending grace to strangers, especially those we usually ignore, can be uncomfortable and even go against well-intentioned advice about handouts. Yet Jesus never mentions the recipient’s heart when he instructs us to give to those who ask. So let’s be quick to give—not just money but conversation, attention, and opportunities. Behave toward homeless people the same way you would anyone else; care for and serve their individual needs. There is no one-size-fits-all way of loving those on the streets just like there is not one for those who reside in homes.

Skid Row shifted my thinking, replacing the “us and them” mentality with full inclusion and making way for empathy instead of sympathy. It taught me that at our core we are more alike than different. I have been branded by the truth I found, the grace I received, and the love I was given. These gifts push me to offer the same kind of love to those I encounter today. Will you join me?

Find more of Rachel’s writing at hitonbythehomeless.com.

By Rachel Karman

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  • Nations Foundation

    A bi-annual, museum quality, print magazine that focuses on the stories of radical, Gospel-centered reformers.

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