As violent demonstrations roil Hong Kong, a bold group of volunteers is providing moral support and physical protection for young protesters
Last week I experienced something that, based on my eight years of living in Los Angeles, is really quite extraordinary: Try as I might, I couldn’t spot a single homeless individual within 6 square miles.
Every year, Los Angeles County conducts a homeless count in all the neighborhoods within its purview. LA has to do this count if it wants to get federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and though the methodology is flawed (it leaves out a huge population of invisible homeless who live in motels or crash on friends’ couches), the count still plays an important role in helping policymakers register the magnitude of the homelessness situation. Last year’s count revealed a 23 percent spike in LA County’s homeless population, to nearly 58,000, a number LA officials called “staggering” and “scary.”
This year, about 8,000 volunteers roamed the streets on foot or cars with their flashlights and tally sheets to count the homeless for three nights, and I was one of them. I sat in the back seat of a Chevrolet Volt with a clipboard, peering out the open window for any potential evidence of homelessness—whether individuals with obviously bad hygiene and weathered skin, couples in tents, families in vehicles with parking tickets and lights on, or makeshift shelters of tarps and carts. I was in a team with two other volunteers. One, an official with the LA Housing & Community Investment Department, manned the wheel. The other, a digital advertiser, navigated. I was the designated counter, which meant I marked lines on my tally sheet whenever I saw a homeless person.
Each team was assigned a census tract, and my team had to cover most of Bel Air, a hillside residential neighborhood with some of the wealthiest residents in the country. For more than two hours, we drove around the borders of our census tract, weaving through narrow, steep streets that abruptly halted in front of bolted gates and private driveways and, in one case, a humongous white bull statue. We meandered so many of these hidden alleyways that I could feel the half-digested cookies in my stomach sliding up my throat, but I forced my eyes open to look for any individuals who looked like they didn’t belong. We saw Tolkienesque castles with majestic front gates that seemed like they belonged behind a moat. We saw grand, swooping villas, glimmering cars, and swanky, futuristic structures with transparent glass walls and infinity pools. What we did not see was a single sign of homelessness.
None of us was surprised. When you’re living in a home worth $6 million to $250 million in an enclosed, highly guarded area, you’re probably also resourceful enough to make your neighborhood very unfriendly to the homeless. Here, hired security guards chase out strangers, while gated communities ward off trespassers. The closest service provider or public restroom is miles away, and the roads have no sidewalks for the homeless to set up camp. Meanwhile, statistics show that the homeless population is growing, while the amount of affordable housing is shrinking—so we knew that the lack of homelessness we saw in Bel Air was not indicative of the real situation in Los Angeles.
“This is a good thing, isn’t it? Should we be disappointed that we didn’t see a single homeless person tonight?”
Although we didn’t see any homeless people, we knew they were around: December’s Skirball fire, which destroyed six homes and damaged 12 more in Bel Air, was apparently ignited by an illegal cooking fire at a homeless encampment in a nearby ravine. Those campers are now gone: The only things officials found at the abandoned homeless site were a scorched portable stove, a pot, a cheese grater, several fuel canisters, a ruined boombox, and burned pages from a children’s encyclopedia. The incident sparked debate within the Bel Air community. Some residents said they sympathized with the homeless, but others said they fear another fire outbreak and want the authorities to crack down on encampments.
By the time we returned to our deployment site at Bel Air Church, it was almost 11 p.m. Some of the youngest volunteers greeted us by the door with hopeful smiles. “Any luck?” a dark-haired boy asked.
I shrugged. “Zero,” I said, returning a tally sheet with no lines, just ovals.
“Oh, really? Zero?” said the boy, looking a little crestfallen. He and his young buddies packed us bundles of leftover cake and brownies in case we got hungry on our drive back home. They also handed out little cloth knapsacks stuffed with hygiene products in case we ran into any homeless persons on our way.
As my teammates and I left the church, we wondered, “This is a good thing, isn’t it? Should we be disappointed that we didn’t see a single homeless person tonight?”
I thought about the New York Times journalist I met that night during the homeless count orientation and guessed that if anyone was most disappointed, it would have been him. He had shown up with a reporter’s notebook and a photographer, hoping to string together some narrative for a future story on LA. He said he had chosen the Bel Air site because he had read about the Skirball fire and had hoped to catch a visible juxtaposition between the rich and the poor. I doubt the photographer got much out of his trip except for some pretty snaps of pretty homes with pretty views.
By the time I reached home, it was almost midnight. My low-income neighborhood is so dense that it’s usually impossible to find parking that late at night, so as usual, I parked at an illegal spot with the plan to move it early in the morning before the parking enforcement officer zipped in. The moment I stepped out of the car, I spotted a homeless man snoring on top of some cardboard on the sidewalk next to a city-run nursing home. As I walked to my apartment, I passed another homeless man who has been living in my neighborhood for as long as I have. He was curled up next to a dollar store with a plastic bundle for a pillow. Nope, it’s not hard to spot homelessness in my neck of the woods.
That New York Times reporter wanted a dramatic scene of the stinking rich and the stinking poor living side-by-side to highlight inequality and injustice in the city. But here in LA, people divide themselves physically by class and, to some degree, by race—and maybe that’s the problem. If you have to rummage through bushes and climb down ravines to find a homeless person, then it’s too easy to forget they even exist.
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Andy Savage, teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn., continues his leave of absence as church leaders review his ministry in the wake of public revelations of a grievous encounter two decades ago between Savage and a 17-year-old girl.
The issue of WORLD Magazine dated Feb. 3 includes an article asking: How should churches handle sexual sins from 20 years ago?
I’ve been thinking about another crucial question: How should churches handle accusations of sexual abuse or other sexual sin by a church leader when it’s first discovered?
Before offering a handful of important points for churches to consider, here’s a brief review of some of what we know about the encounter between Andy Savage and Jules Woodson:
Woodson was a high-school senior near Houston, Texas. Savage was her 22-year-old youth pastor. Woodson says that on a spring evening in 1998, Savage drove her to a secluded area and asked her to perform oral sex on him. Woodson did.
Savage confesses the encounter was sinful, but he describes it as consensual, and says he doesn’t think he broke the law since the legal age of consent in Texas is 17.
Woodson doesn’t claim Savage forced her into sexual activity, but she says she was a stunned teenager who felt overwhelmed and scared by the request from a youth pastor she admired. She considers the encounter a sexual assault.
Texas authorities said this month that the statute of limitations has run out and no charges would be filed against Savage: “Using the current statute we would have some possible options but we are limited to the law as it was at the time of the offense in 1998. As a result, we are unable to investigate and seek justice to the full extent of what … we normally would in such a case.”
Woodson recently wrote about the episode publicly, and Savage confessed publicly to his church, saying he had also sought forgiveness from Woodson two decades ago. (Highpoint leaders confirmed Savage had told them about the sin before he joined the church staff.)
Woodson says the church that she and Savage attended near Houston—Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church—dismissed Savage after his offense, but she maintains they tried to conceal the full truth about what happened. Steve Bradley, still pastor of the congregation now called StoneBridge Church, denies that church leaders conspired to cover up sexual misconduct.
Woodson says she originally reported the incident to associate pastor Larry Cotton, and she contends he mishandled the response. Cotton now serves on staff at the Austin Stone Community Church. Leaders at Austin Stone have placed Cotton on leave, and say they’ve asked a third party organization to investigate. A statement from Austin Stone leaders said they grieved for Woodson: “No one should ever be subject to sexual sin from any church leader.”
That’s a crucial starting point for churches that are thinking ahead about how to deal with similar allegations:
• Take seriously the power dynamic between a church leader and a church member
In some states, the law recognizes what should also be clear to Christians: Church leaders and counselors carry an inherent weight of influence and responsibility as spiritual authorities, so sexually transgressing against church members (whether consensually or by force) is particularly heinous.
Texas statutes deem certain encounters sexual assault if a clergyman “causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser.” In some cases, such laws are used in instances of pastoral counseling relationships that include sexual misconduct over a period of time.
In whatever way the law might apply or might not apply in specific cases, the underlying principle is important: Abuse of spiritual authority can lead to a range of serious harm, including spiritual trauma that can be hard to overcome.
• Know the law in your state
Many states, including Texas, require clergy to report any suspected abuse of a child. It’s important to know the particulars in your own state about what the law requires in connection with mandatory reporting, including how age of consent might or might not apply. If there’s any doubt or questions, call local police to make sure.
• Act swiftly
In Savage’s case, he did leave the church in Houston after admitting his sin to the other pastors. But it’s unclear how long he remained in his own pastoral position. Given the seriousness of the encounter, it seems unwise not to sideline immediately a church leader as soon as such events come to light.
After he left Texas, Savage returned to Memphis. The next year, according to his LinkedIn profile, he became pastor of college students and young singles at Germantown Baptist Church.
In a recent radio interview, Savage said he didn’t tell the leaders of Germantown Baptist what had happened with Woodson because he was embarrassed. Germantown released a statement saying its leadership didn’t know about what happened in Texas until Savage publicly acknowledged it this month.
The Highpoint Church website says Savage “helped launch” Highpoint in 2002, and Savage’s LinkedIn profile describes him “a founding elder” at Highpoint. In a sermon after Savage’s public confession, Highpoint Lead Pastor Chris Conlee said Savage began employment as a staff member at the church, starting teaching two years later, and was named a pastor in 2009.
• Be transparent
Church discipline with a repentant sinner can sometimes be a private process. But when it involves a public leader, or a sin that could affect other people in the congregation, greater transparency is often required.
The details of all that transpired at Woodlands Church aren’t clear, but Woodson says the pastors didn’t disclose the severity of Savage’s encounter with her to all the church members. Instead, she says the church hosted a going-away reception for him, where he told members he had made a poor decision and needed to move on.
In the least, it’s important to discuss letting parents of other youth or children know when a church leader has committed a serious offense of this nature. There are no public indications or accusations that Savage acted in this way with other young women. But a church dealing with a similar situation would have no way of knowing whether other youth were affected. Transparency encourages openness among others.
• Develop policies in advance
Moments of crisis can catch church leaders flat-footed if they haven’t already developed policies for responding to allegations of abuse or misconduct. Every situation will require its own attention and wisdom, but broad policies for how to proceed can provide grounding and accountability.
• Help the victim
Again, it’s unclear what transpired in the days and months after Savage’s encounter with Woodson, but it is clear that Woodson doesn’t think church leadership helped her sufficiently. Hopefully, the investigations will hear from all sides, sort through the details, and come to a clearer picture of what happened.
It’s critical for churches to make sure suffering members get help, and to consistently follow up to find out if more pastoral or counseling assistance is needed.
• Pray for wisdom and get good counsel
As others have pointed out, there’s no sin Christ can’t forgive, and He often works wonderfully to restore repentant sinners and give them fruitful lives of service. But repentance doesn’t remove all consequences, and churches must painstakingly pursue Biblical wisdom and common sense to determine what’s best not only for someone who’s committed a serious offense, but also for those he would serve later.
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Following the bad news coming out of China sometimes leaves me feeling hopeless, as the clampdown on freedom seems to grow day by day. In those times it’s helpful to recall the radical, powerful testimonies of how God has turned hearts toward Him. In 2016, I sat down with Christy and Nathan Chester (engaged at the time) at a Beijing Starbucks to hear Christy’s testimony of how she went from being a girl in a town of 3,000 to one of the top female weightlifters in the country to a child of God seeking to use her talents to share the gospel. Christy Chester is a Chinese national who took her husband’s last name after marriage.
Christy’s life trajectory changed while doing morning exercises at her elementary school in a small town in China’s Hunan province. Scouts showed up looking for students with physiques suitable for weightlifting and handed them dumbbells to test for strength. The scouts were impressed by Christy and two others, and sent the three of them to a special athlete training school in the city of Loudi, more than two hours away. At the age of 12, Christy lived away from home and could only go back for two days each month.
A little more than a year later, a weightlifting coach from Beijing came to Christy’s school scouting for potential athletes and happened to see Christy training in the corner. He liked her bubbly personality, found she was hardworking, and decided to bring her to Beijing to train in a special program for talented young athletes at the Beijing Sport University. At 14, Christy moved even further from home to the bustling capital city of Beijing.
There, Christy spent her days training and studying. Training began at 6 a.m., followed by classes in the morning, and then more training in the afternoon. The rigorous daily schedule meant that studying took a back seat to weightlifting training, and Christy and her classmates would often be too tired to stay awake through class. In the four years Christy spent in the program, she wasn’t able to go home once, and she only got three days off for Chinese New Year.
Working with world-class trainers, Christy excelled in weightlifting competitions, ranking No. 1 in Shanxi province and No. 8 nationwide in her weight category. After four years, Christy felt she had reached her peak athleticism and decided to retire from her weightlifting career. Without the intensive training taking up her time, she poured her energy into studying. She majored in sports education at Beijing Sport University, spent weekdays at the library, and spent her weekends working a part-time job. By the time she graduated college, she was at the top of her class and was automatically accepted into the school’s master’s program.
In 2012, Christy was working at her part-time job at the fast-food chain KFC when she saw a foreigner come in with several other students to buy soft-serve ice cream. She started talking with them to practice her English. The men were part of a Christian ministry for college students, and they invited Christy to a Thanksgiving event. Soon she began attending the group’s weekly Bible studies. Christy, who had never heard of the name Jesus Christ before, thought her new friends were nice, and she was curious as to why people who came from good backgrounds, worked at goods jobs, and attended good schools still needed Jesus. She started to read the Bible every day, and even though she didn’t fully understand it, she knew that it was full of truth. In 2014, she professed faith in Christ and was baptized.
Her faith grew as she watched her church community support her during her preparations to compete in bodybuilding while studying for her master’s degree. While weightlifting only requires having the power to lift, bodybuilding requires strengthening of each muscle as well as sticking to a strict diet to cut down body fat. On days when she was physically spent from training, her church friends came to massage her sore muscles, run errands and do chores, and cheer her on at competitions. “I feel God brought me to Him through different people’s witness,” Christy said. “Every time I compete, I feel God’s love through the service of my Christian brothers and sisters.”
“Every time I compete, I feel God’s love through the service of my Christian brothers and sisters.”
After getting her master’s, Christy started working as a personal trainer at a Beijing gym. Along with helping her clients get fit, Christy sees her job as a ministry opportunity. Although she can’t directly evangelize at work, she’s found that by genuinely caring about her clients, some have become interested in her faith and she’s been able to invite them to church.
In the future, Christy and Nathan hope to open their own CrossFit gym that can double as a space to hold Bible studies, discussions with non-Christians, and even church on Sundays. The Chesters are both involved in CrossFit, with Christy holding the title of the top female CrossFitter in the country.
“She sees God’s special plan in her life,” Nathan said of his wife. “She sees how God chose her and brought her to Beijing, and now she can go back to her hometown with the good news.”
Christy agrees: “I have to give thanks to God. Sometimes I think my life is really unbelievable.”
Lavish lavatories: Using the public toilet in China used to be a sketchy affair with dirty squatty potties swarming with flies. But starting in 2015, President Xi Jinping called for a “toilet revolution” to build clean restrooms. Now it’s gone too far the other way, with fancy toilets popping up around the country: Some restrooms use facial recognition to dispense toilet paper, and others include Wi-Fi, phone chargers, and flat-screen TVs. China’s tourism chief recently asked local governments to stop competing to create five-star toilets.