Agony and ecstasy—12 months of turmoil, disaster, death, rescue, victory, and celebration
I was the most ungrateful person on Thanksgiving this year. Every year, I fly from Los Angeles to northern Virginia to visit my parents for Thanksgiving. And this time, I flew there with an attitude.
I could blame how I barely slept on a red-eye flight next to a child who kept stretching her legs out on top of me. I could blame how I was cold and hungry throughout the 5½-hour flight. But the fact is, that attitude comes from a fundamental truth that I can never change: I am a pastor’s kid.
I’ve written twice about the challenges of being a pastor’s kid and a missionary’s kid. I’m both—double the whammy, or double the blessing, depending on how you look at it. In both of my articles, I tried to emphasize the blessings we PKs and MKs reap from the challenges. Well, this Thanksgiving weekend, I completely forgot what I myself wrote: hence, the attitude.
You see, every Thanksgiving weekend, my parent’s church holds a three-day conference consisting of about eight hours of sermons and church fellowship each day at a hotel. That means I had to check in to the hotel as soon as I got home to Virginia, and for the next three days, I barely saw my parents.
Here’s a true-life story that captures life as a pastor’s kid: On Sunday, we had two services—a morning service at the church conference, then a second one at my parents’ church in Maryland that lasted four hours. On the drive home, my father was so engrossed in discussing church matters with another visiting pastor that he missed the exit to that pastor’s hotel. So he did a long, inconvenient U-turn, and then ... missed the exit again, so distracted was he by his conversation with the pastor.
When we finally reached the hotel, it was freezing and pitch-dark—but since the church talk was not over, we sat in the car outside the hotel entrance for another 35 minutes so that my father and that pastor could finish their conversation. By the time we let that pastor go, my father’s car had run out of gas, and I was highly irritated, tired, hungry, and ... well, steaming with attitude.
From my perspective, I had flown to the East Coast to spend time with my family. I had six days with them, but four got sucked away into Church Time. My old frustrations and resentments about being a pastor’s kid frothed out: Why is it so hard to extricate family time from church life? My family has never once had a family Thanksgiving dinner, or a Christmas morning, or a New Year’s Eve apart from the church. Neither have we ever had a normal family dinner without a dense theology lesson from my preacher father.
But even as I felt my heart wrestle with these old, familiar complaints, I watched my parents interact with the other church members. I saw a single mother who barely survived a suicide attempt 15 years ago smile with genuine joy and insist on cooking a feast for her pastors, even though she’s still frail after destroying her physical body. She does it because she loves her pastors, loves her church, loves the God who delivered her from brokenness.
I saw another young, single mother of two kids latch on to my parents, desperate for comfort and wisdom during a recent crisis, and watched my parents hug and pray with her. She’s always the first to arrive at church and last to leave, loving every minute she spends with her brothers and sisters in Christ. In a way, she’s our church’s modern-day Mary Magdalene—a life full of hurt and sins and sorrows—but I’ve not seen her wallow in shame at church. Somehow, her past drives her boldly toward the front pews, eager to soak up all the grace she can get.
I saw a young man with Down syndrome whom doctors said would be extremely low-functioning but is now a store manager. He attends every church service and goes on mission trips in the summers. Not everyone in church knows how to deal with him, but some people take special notice of him—he’s the one person my mother treats out on his birthday each year.
I saw an elder and his wife whose marriage was shaky for many years, now serving full-time together as a power couple. I saw a young couple with four kids who are still struggling in their marriage, which I know grieves my parents and is the content of much of their private discussions and prayers.
I also saw that my parents are aging. They have joint pains and deeper wrinkles and grayer hairs. Arthritis has pinched my mother’s hands, and when I first saw her, she could barely curl her left hand into a loose fist. She often wakes up at night in pain. Seeing her in such a state wrung my heart so much that I later cried privately. It made me realize that I can’t be a child anymore—I’m now a 31-year-old woman who should be mature enough to realize the time of demanding attention and things from my parents has passed: It’s time for me to serve them, not the other way around.
So while I was with my parents, I took them out to an Italian restaurant, taught them how to do proper lunges and squats, taught them how to shop online and use online coupons, and gave them as many hugs as I could. But that’s just six days out of a year. There are limits to how much I can do for them while living on the opposite coast of the country.
That’s why I was comforted to see that as much as my parents take care of the church, the church takes care of them, too. Their daughter may be away, but their family—the church—is still with them physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When church members found out about my mother’s health issues, they gave her finger massagers, Chinese potions, special gloves, and all sorts of advice to help alleviate her pain. Throughout the year, they make my parents hand-crimped dumplings and homemade chili sauce, spend time with them several days a week, and give them more hugs than I can.
In Mark 3:33-35, Jesus asked, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’”
It’s always a temptation for me to think that the church “stole” my parents from me. Scripture says that’s not true. I may not have a so-called “normal” family, but I gained a whole lot more brothers and sisters and mothers instead of losing my earthly parents. And for that, I am so grateful.
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On Nov. 7, a man stormed into the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a city 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and fired into the crowd, killing 13 people by the end of the night, including himself. Among his 12 victims was Telemachus Orfanos, a 27-year-old U.S. Navy veteran whom female patrons described to me as a “big brother” figure—the kind of gentlemanly guy who walks women to their cars late at night. Orfanos, whom everyone called “Tel,” was also a survivor of the Las Vegas massacre last year. He didn’t survive this second shooting.
Turns out, several people at Borderline that night were also survivors of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. The media reported that discovery with surprise, but for a little-known but tightknit network of mass shooting survivors, that wasn’t as much of a surprise: Borderline was where many of them gathered regularly for support groups.
These survivors include people who witnessed the murders and friends and relatives of those killed or wounded. They gather because they continue to suffer the aftereffects of their trauma long after the consolation cards and media frenzy disappear. And as the rest of society moves on after a mass shooting, fellow survivors still remember to reach out and offer a hug, financial assistance, and lifelong friendships. As one survivor told me, “We’re not just fellow survivors. We’re family.”
I witnessed this strong community support while visiting the Borderline memorial a few days after the shooting. I was working on a story about how the local community was processing its grief at a time when, within 24 hours of the tragedy, a large wildfire also hit the same area. The tears hadn’t yet dried when wildfires burned hundreds of homes to ashes and forced thousands of people to evacuate.
These fires delayed the community’s ability to visit the memorial site, a dozen white wooden crosses set up at a road intersection near Borderline. When I arrived at the site on an early Sunday morning, the first mourners were streaming in with flowers and tear-streaked faces.
I stood in front of the hand-painted crosses, staring solemnly at pictures of each victim. Their faces smiled back at me—young, beautiful, and now gone from this earthly life forever. As I stood there, several people approached me and asked if I knew any of the victims. I told them no, I’m a journalist. They nodded and said they were Las Vegas shooting survivors. They thanked me for covering the shooting. Because the California wildfires happened so soon after the shooting and were still burning ferociously, most media coverage at that point was focused on the fires. And that’s why the survivors were there—they never forget.
One, Alicia Soto, told me she had driven an hour from Palm Springs that morning to the memorial so that she could comfort other survivors: “I’m here so they know there’s someone here who’s been through it, too.”
Soto didn’t say much about her own experience in Las Vegas, but she had a lot to say about the aftermath. A year has passed, but the memories of the screams and sirens that night still haunt her. Loud or sudden noises startle her. She works at a high school, where at times the crowded hallways and shouts of teenagers strike her with panic. When the school bell rings, she feels a rush of fear. Sometimes, even during a normal conversation with someone, something triggers her and she freezes, internally battling with anxiety.
But Soto doesn’t have to describe all these post-traumatic experiences to her fellow survivors. They already know—they suffer the same symptoms—and they don’t expect her to “just get over it.”
And that’s why a group of Las Vegas shooting survivors were at Borderline the night of Nov. 7. Many survivors understandably have trouble attending concerts and enclosed public venues. So when they decide to attend a music venue event, they call each other and make plans to go together. They no longer stand near the stage. Instead, they stay close to the nearest exit doors. When a member of the group suddenly turns quiet and finds a chair to sit down, they all know what that means.
“We don’t even say much when that happens,” Soto said. “We just sit next to that person and hug him or her. That’s all we need to do. It shows that we understand, that we’re here with you through it.” She let out a wistful laugh. “I used to be that girl standing way up front by the stage dancing away. Those days are gone.”
Many survivors are unable to return to previous lifestyles. One couple I met at the Borderline memorial, Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, told me they lost their daughter Jessi in the 2012 Aurora shooting, when a man fired into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., injuring 58 people and killing 12, including Jessi.
After the loss, Jessi’s grief-stricken parents rented out their house in San Antonio, Texas, and lived out of a camper so they could attend the shooter’s trial. Then when the Sandy Hook shooting erupted in Newtown, Conn., they drove over to meet other survivors and share their stories. There, after they wept with people affected by the shooting, Sandy Phillips turned to her husband and said, “We’ve found our calling.”
Since then, they’ve lived on the road, traveling from city to city to wherever the latest mass shooting is. They founded a nonprofit, Survivors Empowered, which matches survivors with other survivors, refers them to services, helps them tell their stories, and sends out a “rapid response team” to mass shooting sites. Borderline is the 11th shooting site the Phillipses have visited since their daughter died.
“We’re just doing what we have to do to help other people and bring some sense to a senseless loss,” Lonnie Phillips told me as another man came over to wrap his arm around his shoulders. “We have to make sure it’s not forgotten. Unfortunately, these shootings are just stacking over each other.”
The Phillipses have gradually become accustomed to living with the weight of their immense loss. Time doesn’t erase what happened, but it heals raw wounds. Today, Lonnie and his wife can laugh again.
When Lonnie told me he was “three-quarters of a century” old, I replied honestly: “You look good for a 75-year-old!” He smiled mischievously and nudged me with his elbow: “Are you hitting on me?” Life will never be the same for the Phillipses, yet it can still have meaning and goodness.
Later I watched Lonnie and his wife walk around with a badge of their daughter’s picture pinned to their chests, quietly hugging anyone who needed comfort. They told the mourners they need not be alone, and that they had a new community now.
“We’re all in this club nobody wants to belong to,” Lonnie later told me.
That morning, a woman stood in front of the crosses. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed. One of the Las Vegas survivors walked up to her and gently put his hand on her back. After a while, he told her she was welcome to come to any of their homes for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She was no stranger anymore.
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When I first started working on my series on homelessness, I remember walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles one night with a homeless man named Ronald, listening to him point out places that reminded him of the not-so-distant past.
“That’s where I used to sing for food,” Ronald said, pointing at a restaurant. He jabbed his thumb to another street: “And that’s where I would walk over to trade food for crack.” He pointed at another corner and said, “That’s where I sometimes sleep so I can be far away from the crazies of Skid Row.”
At the time, Ronald was many months sober and fighting each day to stay sober. He was lucid and experienced and bruised enough to share nuggets of hard-earned wisdom with me. One of the many questions I asked Ronald was one I’ve heard others ask me numerous times: “There are so many homeless people around me. How do I know whom to help?”
Ronald stopped walking and looked at me. “Sophia, remember this: You can’t help everyone. If you tried to help everyone, you’ll be sucked dry like they are. The person you should help is the person God wants you to help.”
“Sure, but then how do I know who’s the person God wants me to help?” I asked.
“If God wants you to help someone, He’ll make that known to you,” Ronald said, an answer that didn’t quite satisfy me.
Easy for Ronald to say—he’s got a special anointing. When God wants Ronald to help someone, out of his mouth pour songs of prophecy, his heart clenches with conviction, and sometimes he gets literally kicked and walloped into his mission, like Jonah.
As for me, I am pretty much your average humdrum Christian. I was raised in a Christian home, and today I read the Bible, go to church, and pray according to Scripture. My dreams are extraordinarily dull, and although sometimes I cry joyful tears when I worship, I’ve never experienced the sort of lightning-bolt confirmation I want from God to questions like these. So how would someone like me know when God wants me to help a particular homeless person?
Enter John. John is a 61-year-old homeless man who has been living in LA’s touristy neighborhood of Venice for almost six years. He’s an alcoholic who spends each weekday collecting recyclables and blowing all his cash on cheap vodka from CVS. He walks so much back and forth between the beach and the recycling center that he wears through his sneakers within months. And for some reason, my boyfriend David and I have a very soft spot for our dear friend John.
I’ve known John for almost two years and have written about him several times. But although David and I have tried to help him several times, including checking him into rehab, nothing much has changed for John. He still sleeps on the same street next to a Gold’s Gym and a Public Storage facility, and he still passes out inebriated every night. Over time, David and I took a step back and stopped pushing him to change his life: He needed to come to that conclusion himself. But we still care for him and try to remind him, whenever possible, that a different life is possible.
Then on a recent Thursday, John told us his sister was in town. We were shocked: The only thing we knew about John’s immediate family was what he had told us—that his sisters had bought him a bus ticket from Seattle to LA and haven’t been in contact with him since. Whenever he mentioned his sisters, John made it sound like they had given up on him. “It’ll be best for them if I were dead,” I remember him saying. Now he was telling us that his sister had flown down from Seattle to look for him.
Turns out, John had been chatting drunkenly with a security guard one night and had mentioned his sister’s full name. He promptly forgot that conversation, but the security guard, whose name is Rafael, remembered. Rafael looked up John’s sister’s name online and found a landline phone number for her. His sister said she had kept that landline number because that was the number John would remember should he ever call. When Rafael told her where John usually sleeps, she flew down, booked a motel near the airport, and drove a rental car to look for John. She recognized him as soon as she saw him.
I met up with John and his sister that week on a Friday afternoon before she returned home. I wanted to meet her in person so that she’d see a smiling human face and know that there are people who care for John in this big, chaotic city of Los Angeles. As we stood next to an overpriced parking lot by the beach walk, I hugged John’s sister and patted John’s arm hello.
Unsurprisingly, the two siblings were overwhelmed. It had been almost six years since they last saw each other, and for years John’s sisters had no idea if he was dead or alive. John’s sister asked him if he would go back to Seattle with her, but he refused.
Rafael the security guard joined us too, and I soon found out that he had only been sent to work in Venice temporarily, and was actually leaving for home that very day. Rafael told me he lives 50 miles north, and it was only by chance that he got stationed at the Public Storage near where John sleeps. It was by chance that John wanted to chat with a stranger and happened to mention his sister’s name. But it was not by chance that this kind stranger took the time to look for his sister and call her.
As I listened to Rafael, I too felt overwhelmed. I turned to John and said, “See, John? This is not a coincidence! It can’t be! Someone up there loves you.”
“Someone up there who? The sky?” John replied with his usual cheeky humor. But I knew he knew what I meant. During his worst moments, he had asked for prayer—he might not know God personally, but he knows innately to call out to Him.
Later I said to John privately, “Look, John, your sister flew down all the way just to look for you. Rafael looked for your sister for you. People care about you, John. That means God cares about you too.”
“Yeah,” John mumbled, and muttered something about knowing he needed to enter rehab. But we knew it would take a lot more for John to check himself in to a rehab center. He says he wants to quit alcohol—and I believe he does—but his will is insufficient. For now, one step at a time.
First step: John’s sister had brought with her a copy of his birth certificate. Like many homeless people on the streets, John had lost all his belongings, including his ID, which meant he hasn’t been able to get many of the resources that he needs. So we gave John one task: Take the birth certificate copy to the nearby nonprofit St. Joseph’s, and ask the staffers there to help him procure an ID.
“OK, OK,” John said. “I’ll do it first thing Monday.” Then he paused: “Oh no, wait, Monday is recycling day. I’ll do it Tuesday.”
“You promise?” I said doubtfully.
“Yes, I promise, I promise,” John replied.
I told John’s sister I would keep in touch with her about John, and she looked relieved. There’s no other way for her to check on him, since John doesn’t have a cell phone. She said she’s retired and doesn’t have a lot of money, but she plans to come down periodically to visit him, now that she knows where he is.
As we said our goodbyes, she waited for John to walk ahead of her before turning to me with a wistful, anguished expression: “He’s really such a wonderful person, you know. He was so smart, so talented. … He even went to law school!” She didn’t say much more, but we both silently mourned all the years that alcoholism has robbed from this gentle, suffering man.
I then remembered what Ronald also told me when I had expressed a sense of despair: “With love, anything is possible. That love comes from God who sends someone to a person He loves. … Be encouraged. No matter what people are going through and how bad it is, if they’re not dead, there is still hope.”
John’s life is not over. Seeing how God had placed people in his life encouraged me because it confirmed to me something I had already known: God loves John. I met John and developed a heart for him because God loves him. Therefore, there is hope for John. And if John can’t see it, perhaps we can help him see it.