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Sophia's World Journals Sophia's World

Richard Vogel/AP

A street in downtown Los Angeles. (Richard Vogel/AP)

Sophia's World

Feeling helpless for the homeless

Our best efforts to fix the problem are still falling short

A while ago, a church friend invited me to give a talk about homelessness at her local community group in Los Angeles. More than two dozen people showed up that night—much more than usual, my friend later told me. That night we squeezed into a living room and for two hours talked about how to best help the homeless in our city.

I was encouraged to see these young Christians express genuine concern for their homeless neighbors, but I could also sense their feelings of helplessness, frustration, guilt, and anger: How did we let things get so bad? Why don’t things seem to improve, despite all the money we’re flooding into the system? I’m not doing anything to help, but volunteering at soup kitchens seems like pasting Band-Aids over gushing wound—so how can I make a difference? How can the church help?

I share their feelings—and those feelings have magnified after seeing the most recent homeless count for Los Angeles: In one year, the number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles has grown 16 percent, and in LA County, it has grown 12 percent. We have at least 59,000 individuals without a home—59,000! That’s the size of a small city.

The report really isn’t shocking to us Angelenos: We all see the visible growth of homelessness in our city. But it is still incredibly devastating and disheartening. Many Angelenos feel duped. Last year alone, we spent $619 million on housing and services for the homeless. In 2016, we voted for a $1.2 billion bond to build 10,000 new supportive housing units in 10 years, and then we taxed ourselves an extra $355 million to pay for more services.

It’ll take years for us to see any results, and according to what city employees and developers tell me, we’re probably not going to meet our 10,000-unit goal. The city has begun construction on several housing projects, but many more are stuck in bureaucratic pipeline as construction costs continue to rise. Meanwhile, more and more people are sleeping on the streets.

The city has begun construction on several housing projects, but many more are stuck in bureaucratic pipeline as construction costs continue to rise.

Homelessness in LA has been decades in the making, so it’s not fair for people to demand quick, visible results. But it’s fair to expect more from our elected officials, especially when the homeless are dying on the streets in record numbers. Last year, 918 people died alone in the urban wilderness due to a mix of reasons including drug and alcohol-related problems, health issues, mental illness, and violence.

Mayor Eric Garcetti acknowledged in a public statement that the report is “heartbreaking,” then made the same promises he had made years earlier: We’ll spend more money, build more housing, provide more services. But so far, our elected officials are still moving too slowly, bogged down by bureaucracy, simplistic solutions, and sheer lack of courage. Their current plan to solve homelessness is unsustainable. For example, when each “affordable” housing unit for the homeless costs $500,000 and several years to build, it sounds to me like we need a plan B. There also aren’t enough incentives for developers to build more affordable housing—the one incentive we offer is a federal low-income housing tax credit program that’s so cumbersome and convoluted that most developers would rather avoid the hassle and build more luxury condos.

LA officials point out that we’ve housed more than 21,000 people last year. That’s cause for celebration, but after reporting on homelessness for two years, I can’t help but be skeptical: I know that many people who are homeless struggle to maintain housing due to an array of reasons, such as substance abuse, mental illness, rent increases, or relationship issues. More than half of those 21,000 people we housed last year are on some form of subsidized/supportive housing, and one-third of them are on subsidies that will eventually expire—what happens then? LA officials don’t like talking about that kind of stuff. They’d rather focus on homelessness being a housing issue, because then the solution is simple: Give someone a home, and they’re no longer homeless.

It’s not that simple. Homelessness is made up of unique human beings with uniquely complex issues and stories. You can give a dog a home, feed it, and walk it, and it will be happy. Not so with human beings, who come with trauma, personalities, flaws, longings, and eternal souls. Simply giving them a home won’t fix the many underlying issues of homelessness. How to give hope to someone who has given up on life?

One 56-year-old formerly homeless woman named Detroit recently texted me and said that after landing housing for about two years, her landlord sold the property and is now sending tenants notices telling them they have to move out. “I’m not the first person they’ve done this to,” she told me, referring to landlords who sell the building (or pretend to) or increase rent to an exorbitant price. “They did this to my husband. They just did this to my friend. They did this to my sister and she has nowhere to live.”

Detroit has been in and out of homelessness in Skid Row since she was 19, when she checked herself into a psychiatric institution. After the closure of public mental hospitals in the 1980s, she ended up on the streets and began using drugs to self-medicate. She says she’s been sober for many years now, and she knows many people like her who are also sober and desperately want to get out of street life but have no way to find affordable housing, no way to find a job that matches the high cost of living in Los Angeles. “The world has no idea what’s going on,” she told me. “I’m about to be back outside again. I’m scared.”

Every homeless person I’ve talked to knows about the $1.2 billion bond reserved for housing—and many don’t believe they’ll ever reap the benefits of it. There’s a lot of money to be made in this ecosystem of homelessness, they tell me: Why would anyone want to solve it? No wonder Detroit and many others have come to this depressing conclusion: “Nobody cares about us anymore.”

I don’t think that’s entirely true. I’ve met countless tireless citizens who organize and attend pro-housing/pro-shelter events, build tiny homes for free, cut people’s hair at mobile showers, mentor kids at rescue missions, pass out burritos to the homeless—whatever they can do to help. The problem is, it still feels like we’re chipping away at a glacier with toothpicks. There is little we can do to change things when the system in which we operate is so broken. So many do nothing, and feel guilty and ashamed for it.

Meanwhile, homelessness is also impacting the rest of us. I no longer enjoy taking walks around my neighborhood—who wants to step on human feces or smell that acrid stench of urine during their evening stroll? Today people are freaking out over claims of purported links between cases of typhus, typhoid, and other vermin-spread infectious diseases and the homeless population. How will that influence people’s perception of the homeless? Already residents are citing diseases, trash, and drug needles as reasons to oppose the creation of much-needed shelters in their neighborhoods.

I’m worried about the day our compassion runs out. And I’m worried about the day we give up on the homeless the way many have given up on us.

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Sophia's World

Speaking as a friend

Learning to talk to non-Christians with sensitivity and humility

A while ago, I was having dinner at a Japanese izakaya with one of my best friends when we began talking about Islam. 

A little context: At the time, I was pretty obsessed about Islam. After reporting on Islamism in Southeast Asia and reading former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi’s books, I concluded that Islam is a dangerous religion, one that’s fundamentally violent in its goal to function as a political system. Meanwhile, my friend—let’s call her Jane—is a liberal freethinker who looks out for oppressed minorities, and to her, Muslims belonged to that group. 

So when I told Jane my concerns about Islam, she pushed back, saying that kind of rhetoric would result in curtailing the freedom and rights of a minority group in the United States. Always loving a good debate, I pushed right back. My voice turned louder, and my sentences ran faster. I told her yes, I know most moderate Muslims don’t subscribe to extremist Islamism, but they’re still upholding a religion that is inherently evil—not just because some of its teachings lead to injustice and violence, but because all idolatry is evil.

Then to my great surprise, Jane began crying. 

“Why are you crying?” I asked, half alarmed, half exasperated. 

“Do you think I’m evil, Sophia?” Jane asked, her voice wobbling. “You’re basically saying that anyone who doesn’t believe in the Christian God is evil. So are you saying I’m evil too, because I’m not a Christian?” 

That’s when I realized I had spoken using Christianized language. I am well-versed with words such as “idolatry” and “evil,” but Jane was not. To me, “evil” is something devoid of God, something that contradicts His holiness. Sin is evil, and we’re all sinners, as Romans 3:10 states: “None is righteous, no, not one.” But to Jane, “evil” meant disgusting and despicable, someone like Hitler or Ted Bundy ... and from what she was saying, I was equating her with a Nazi and a serial killer. 

The thing is, what I said isn’t untrue, Biblically speaking. But my attention wasn’t really on my friend, but on winning an intellectual debate. I had been more interested in convincing her to change her views on an issue that, frankly, didn’t have much personal effect on either of us. While trying to debate an impersonal issue, I had forgotten that I was talking to a human soul who was personalizing my words and taking them as a condemnation on her very being. Jane wasn’t crying because I had spoken truth to her—she was crying because I was insensitive and combative in the way I said it.

Jane wasn’t crying because I had spoken truth to her—she was crying because I was insensitive and combative in the way I said it.

I remembered my conversation with Jane while working on a feature story about Laci Green, an agnostic, liberal YouTube influencer. In that article, I wrote about Green’s and my religious upbringings, our crisis of faith as teenagers, and how we shared a common desire for community, purpose, and goodness despite our fundamentally different worldviews that led us to very different directions in life.

Until then, I had never heard of Laci Green. Had I simply followed Green on Twitter (back when she was more active on social media), perhaps I would have rolled my eyes and scoffed at her views on feminism, sex, and politics. As a conservative, I might have dismissed her as another cuckoo, feminist, social justice warrior who worships her ideals at the expense of rationality and reality. 

But I’m glad I got the chance to meet Green in Los Angeles and hear her story face to face. There’s a saying in Korean: “You can’t spit at a smiling face.” And it’s quite true. Whatever political stripe you wear, whatever your opposing beliefs, a genuine smile is a universal sign for friendliness and warmth, and Green had one of those full-teeth, gleaming-eyes smiles. So I smiled back, and we did what Angelenos do best: complain about LA traffic. 

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Sophia Lee

Women at the iftar in Los Angeles (Sophia Lee)

Sophia's World

Iftar at a mosque

Observations from an interfaith evening meal during Ramadan

Last week, I was invited to an iftar at a mosque in Los Angeles. An iftar is an evening meal that Muslims eat to break their Ramadan fast after sunset. Ramadan began on May 5 this year, and for a whole month, Muslims all around the world are fasting from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.

I decided to sign up for this iftar: I’ve been to Shabbat dinners with Orthodox Jews, so why not a Ramadan dinner with Muslims? I didn’t think much of it until I mentioned it to an older woman from Colombia named Ruth, and she shot me a look of alarm. This woman cleans houses for a living, and for every inch of space that she dusts and vacuums, she covers it with prayers of protection and blessings. And now this prayer warrior was telling me, “If I were you, I’d pray to God and ask if He wants me to go.” 

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It’s just a meal with fellow human beings. We don’t share the same faith, but I don’t think there’s anything bad about building friendships with people of other religions.”

“Yes, yes, but it’s not just a meal.” Ruth said. “That’s a communion. You’re sharing communion with people who practice witchcraft.”

“Witchcraft?” I repeated, almost laughing out loud. “Muslims don’t practice witchcraft, Ruth.” 

She shook her head. “Maybe not, but you’ve got to remember: We live in a spiritual realm. There are demonic things in the Islamic religion. They pray five times to a false god. Just think: Who are they calling out to?”

Frankly, I thought she was being rather extreme. We live in a culturally and religiously diverse society. I grew up with Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Buddhist, and Taoist friends in Singapore. Los Angeles is home to about 500,000 Muslims, and I live a few blocks away from one of the largest mosques in Southern California. With all the religious strife and violence and persecutions erupting in this world, what’s wrong with Christians and Muslims sharing a meal to build relationships and understanding?

So I went to that iftar on Tuesday evening. But I heeded at least one piece of advice from Ruth—I prayed. It was a simple prayer: I prayed for God to let me see what I needed to see, and I prayed for the souls of the people at the iftar. 

Turns out, the mosque where this iftar was held is one I pass by every two weeks on my way to a church neighborhood dinner. I had always wondered about this mosque, and now a polite man in a black thawb (a long tunic) was guiding me around inside. A former King of Saudi Arabia and his son built the mosque 1996—a white-and-blue structure with an elaborate dome, a 72-foot-high minaret, and Turkish tiles. My guide ushered me into the library, a room rimmed with Arabic religious books, and then led me to the prayer rooms. The prayer rooms are segregated by gender—lower room for males, upper room for females—and are open daily for the five Islamic prayers. Sometimes on Fridays during jumah (a Friday afternoon prayer), prostrated bodies fill the mosque all the way back to the entrance.

We had our iftar on the second floor, where people greeted each other with “Assalamu Alaykum,” or “Peace be upon you.” Most of the 80 or more people there were Muslims, and I was one of about a dozen professing Christians in the room. 

While we waited for the evening prayers to start, leaders of other faith communities talked about what fasting means to their own religion. The imam said fasting leads to a deeper consciousness of God, who watches everything you do. A leader from the Agape International Spiritual Center, a transdenominational congregation, talked about how Jesus was the greatest spiritual scientist, and said that how Jesus overcame temptation on earth “emanates everything that represents Ramadan.” A Reform Jew talked about how Jews and Muslims may have some differing religious tenets, but really, they are all the same. An evangelical pastor said fasting shouldn’t just purify you inside, but manifest outwardly as kindness and compassion for others. 

That’s when warning bells began tinkling for me. They all talked about God. They all talked about prayers, treating others well, and peace. But even the evangelical pastor didn’t make any distinction about who people worship during their fasting—and nothing he said would have been out of place coming from of the mouth of an imam or a rabbi. That bothered me. Then during dinner, people stood up to share what they learned from the speakers. One person said, “What I learned is that God is one. We are one, and our God is one.” Almost everyone in the room nodded in appreciation. That bothered me too.

When the clear distinctions between the gospel and other religions get blurred … that’s when I wonder how much shaky ground we stand on during such interfaith gatherings. 

Later, I asked a Muslim woman in a hijab what she prays for during her daily prayers. Come Ramadan, she said, she puts her gym membership on hold, suspends her Netflix account, and tells her friends she’s offline for a month. And five times a day, she prays for her mother who recently passed away, for her own well-being and career, and for God to forgive all the sins in her family lineage. 

I was surprised: “Even your ancestors?”

She nodded enthusiastically: “Yes, even my ancestors. I pray for everyone in my lineage. I pray that God will wipe all their slates clean and they’ll meet him in heaven.”

“I’ve never heard of praying for the sins of your family lineage in Islam,” I said. 

“Oh, I didn’t get this from Islam!” the woman chirped. “A while ago, I attended a Christian Bible study. I just like to attend those things and learn about Christianity, you know? And this Christian lady at the Bible study, she told me I should pray for the sins of everyone in my family line, and God will forgive all of them. I thought, ‘Huh, I like that. Why not?’ So I’ve been praying for my family’s sins ever since.” 

I was aghast. What sort of Bible study was this? They had an amazing opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to a curious, spiritually hungry Muslim woman, and this was the heretical poppycock they fed her instead? 

Then the woman got up to perform her fifth prayer at 9:15 p.m. “I gotta go, but it was so wonderful meeting you,” she said, beaming. “I love that you came to our iftar. We all worship and pray to the same God after all, right?”

Oh, nooooo. What conflicting emotions and thoughts I had then! I loved each individual there, for we are all image-bearers of the same Creator. These Muslims were friendly, welcoming people, genuinely delighted to break bread with non-Muslims, and they were fun to be with. But we do not pray to the same God. They do not know God, for Jesus Himself said, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23).

I desire friendships with people of other faiths. I support working with other faith communities to address issues such as injustice, freedom of worship, and religious persecution. I condemn Islamophobia. But when the clear distinctions between the gospel and other religions get blurred, when participants take away a feel-good sense of “oneness” and even syncretize certain beliefs or practices, when an evangelical leader says almost nothing that sets him apart from imams and universalists, that’s when I wonder how much shaky ground we stand on during such interfaith gatherings. 

During the evening prayer, we Christians didn’t have to pray with the Muslims. I stood at the back and watched them bow and then prostrate themselves on the rug whenever the imam sang out, “Allahu Akbar!” Among them was a little boy, around 5 years old, copying his father’s movements from a 90-degree bow to full prostrate. But as everyone kept their heads down to pray, he popped his head up, peeking and looking restlessly around him.

This little boy probably didn’t understand what he was doing. But he’s a little human being, created with both physical and spiritual eyes that saw something sacred and serious was going on. So even though he wasn’t sure what was happening, he dutifully tucked his head back down to a posture of submission to Allah. 

May we Christians not be like that little boy—seeing but not understanding, sensing but not discerning, questioning yet blindly submitting to what society tells us is right.

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