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As someone who’s been caressing books before I could walk, I can never resist asking anyone who’s holding a book what he’s reading. That’s how I befriended a homeless man named Chris in Venice, a beachfront neighborhood in Los Angeles. Chris roams the Venice boardwalk by day and sleeps in a tent on the sidewalk by night. Among his mountain of belongings on the streets was a stack of books—fiction about aliens, picture books on erotic massages, and philosophy classics.
Turns out Chris—an eloquent, whip-smart man who twirls his tangled goatee when he’s thinking, an alcoholic and former drug dealer with several bench warrants to his name—loves a good debate on religion and philosophy. His favorite philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche, best known for his “God is dead” remark. When Chris found out I’m a Christian, he suggested I read his favorite book, The Satanic Bible by Anton Szandor LaVey. I burst out laughing, then struck a deal with him: I’ll read that book, but he’ll also have to read a book I recommend. We shook hands on it. The next week, I gave him my copy of Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God and texted him a photo of a copy of The Satanic Bible that I borrowed from the library.
Since then, I’ve bumped into Chris and his wife Denise many more times during my weekly reporting ventures in Venice. My boyfriend and I took them out bowling one night, in which I not-so-graciously lost as the star Gutter Queen. We laughed, we hooted, we danced, and although I spotted them glugging more vodka into their fishbowl-sized alcoholic drink, we had lots of fun. As we drove out of the bowling alley in my boyfriend’s car, Chris nonchalantly mentioned that he once drove a Mini Cooper just like his—in fact, Chris said without a single wink, he had hijacked that car and gotten arrested for it.
It wasn’t the alcohol speaking—at random moments, Chris or Denise would make brutally honest comments that revealed more complexity to their story: They had a handsome teenage son in foster care, and teared up when they spoke of him. Chris and Denise first met each other when he was dealing and she was prostituting, apparently fell instantly in love, and married several days later. They said they lost everything when Chris’ business partner swindled him. They want off the streets—but on their terms, not the service providers’—and made me look them in the eyes when they swore they no longer did hard drugs.
Welcome to “Sophia’s World,” a column where you’ll get to peek into my notebook—the scraps, the footnotes, the questions of a journalist bumbling into people and places. You’ll meet interesting characters like Chris and Denise, whom I met during my reporting trips but never wrote about for WORLD Magazine. Nevertheless, my interactions with them deepened my understanding in the issue I was reporting on—and provoked internal conflicts as well: How do you help someone like Chris and Denise? How much of what they said can I trust? As a journalist, how much friendship can I extend to them before it breaches professional boundaries? And as a Christian, how do I point this couple to Jesus?
I don’t know if Chris ever read the Tim Keller book, but I kept my end of our deal and finished The Satanic Bible. We had a lively discussion about it, and his wife now jokingly calls me “Bible Study Chick.” Once, they told me I was real lovely and all, but they were sure there was a devilish side prowling inside me, ready to be let out. I understood what they meant—as people who have seen and experienced the demons that destroy families and individuals, they recognized that even a smiling, squeaky-clean-looking Christian journalist had her demons.
So I told them I do indeed have my demons—it’s called sin. And whenever they’re ready, I’d love to tell them about Jesus Christ who died for this sinner. But as of right now, Chris and Denise are still out on the streets of Venice, hustling to crawl out of the dungeon they and their demons have created. Oh Lord, have compassion on this couple. Have mercy on all us lost souls.