BY KELSEY VERRILL
I still remember my first day living in the Tenderloin.
I circled around the neighborhood in my friend's minivan countless times before I got the courage to walk into YWAM. I met a few people and then lugged my suitcases up the stairs to the apartments hovering over our main facility. After unpacking, I walked downstairs to our drop-in center. Monday through Friday we offer services to our friends experiencing homelessness. That day, in particular, was a shower day. Rubbing my eyes, I took in everything I saw. There was Pepper, the dog, sitting by the front door. There were people lined up waiting for their turn to shower, and there was an old piano in the corner. A man with a ratty old band t-shirt was playing it. I made a beeline over to him and stood there listening for what seemed like forever. He was good. He was so good. After a while, he noticed me standing behind him. He nodded at me, got up from the bench, and before I knew it I began to beat on the keys. It didn't take long for him to memorize the movement of my hands before he began to play with me. Our hands moved up and down the keys together and I knew then that I had made my first real friend here.
He asked my name and introduced himself as Paul. "Good to meet you," I said and he followed with a smirk. "Likewise". After that, I saw Paul everywhere. Often when I had time in my schedule I'd bring down my guitar and find him on the street. He was patient with me and told me how good I was (even though I didn’t believe him).
Paul loved Jesus. He had gaps in his theology and really struggled with drug use, but he was brilliant. We'd walk up and down Ellis Street talking about the person of Jesus. I learned so much about who God is through my conversations with Paul. One night in particular, when I was walking home from a friends house, I ran into Paul. He was standing on the sidewalk, just wearing his boxers and the same ratty band t-shirt he was wearing the first day I met him. Not surprised at all by his lack of pants I said "Paul what the heck! Where are your pants?!" He then loudly exclaimed, "I ran into someone on the street who really needed pants, so I gave him mine!" That’s who Paul was. Paul was loving and protective. He was compassionate and kind. He was so generous with the very little that he had. Paul inspired me to play music more and to really look around when I walked through the Tenderloin. Friendship with him reminded me to pay attention and to really value people.
A few days after the pants incident, Paul got hit by a car and died. At first, I didn't know how to process it. I was angry and confused. I went to his memorial service and there were only 6 people there. I didn't want to say anything. I didn't want to talk about my friend with strangers over weird pound cake and orange juice. But I felt the Holy Spirit say to me, "Kelsey, stand up and talk about your friend." So I did. In the tiny room of strangers, I told stories about Paul and the generous life he led. He was an important person. I wish you could've met him.
Stories like this are sometimes very difficult for me to share. I often find my heart beginning to harden and I have to remind it that it’s okay to stay soft. Sometimes it just feels counter-intuitive to walk into painful places. Why would I do that? Why would I knowingly walk right into a painful corner? But it’s always there. The love. The beauty. The wisdom walking around the streets. I’d choose to know these people and live this life over, and over again.
The kingdom is so upside down. Less is more. To die is to live. Be like little kids. Walk into places knowing that there will be grief. The things that Jesus talked about in the Bible were surprising and sometimes offensive. But I've learned that my willingness to stay open and to love deep will always lead me closer to the Father. And I've learned that the closer I get to the Father, the deeper I want to love in that real kind of way. In that Paul kind of way. In that Jesus kind of way.
All of this has me thinking. Am I the kind of person who is willing to give away the clothes on my back? Am I contending and fighting for justice? Am I continuing conversations about race and racism? Am I noticing people on the margin? Am I advocating for refugees and immigrants? Or the global health crisis? Or homelessness and addiction? Am I allowing Jesus to stand right in the middle of these hard places to resurrect them? Maybe we can be more like Paul. Maybe we can live our lives a little more free, today. A little more open, today. Because sure it might not be the safest option, but it’s the one that will always bring us deeper.
The people of the Tenderloin are beautiful. They are the generous ones. They are the ones who immigrated here from hard places. They are the seniors in group homes on Ellis Street. They are the Latino families who send their kids to dance class. They are the Yemeni women who make the best bread. They are the owners of our favorite neighborhood markets who always offer me free sparkly water! They are Paul and Abdul and Melissa. They are hope and joy and love.
This is the true Kingdom of Heaven.