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Sophia Lee

John Simpson (Sophia Lee)

Sophia's World

A day in the life of John Simpson

Learning to understand a man living homeless in Venice Beach

John Simpson is a man I met while reporting on homelessness in Los Angeles: He’s 60 years old, about 6-foot-1, and has been homeless for five years. He has flushed cheeks, a belly that protrudes like a loosely tied sack, and a bushy beard nestled with three years’ worth of dirt and crumbs.

Simpson sleeps on a sidewalk in Venice, a trendy beachside neighborhood that has fast become one of the most expensive places to live in Los Angeles. Once a commune for struggling artists and old-school liberal hippies, Venice is now better known as a hipster paradise of boutiques, coffee shops, and tech startups. In fact, Simpson’s backyard is the LA headquarters of Google, and his front lawn is the first Gold’s Gym, where celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone built their muscle-swollen physique. A block away from Simpson’s abode is the famous Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a long shopping strip where you can buy a $575 ceramic dish, a $4 vegan raspberry rosemary buttermilk doughnut, and $6 lattes.

Not that Simpson cares to enjoy the luxuries of Venice. His mind focuses on one thing every day: Alcohol—how to get it, where to get it, when to get it. Every morning he wakes up at 5:30, rolls his sleeping bag into a tight bundle, and tucks it under his tarp-covered pile of belongings. He wakes before the sun does because the city has banned tents on sidewalks from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., but he can’t sleep much anyway since the concrete pavement hurts his back.

For the rest of the day he walks, and walks, and walks all around town, digging through trash bins for recyclables: glass bottles, plastic bottles, aluminum cans. His favorite score is Gatorade bottles, since they’re made of heavy plastic and the recycling center pays him by the weight of the material. Sometimes during his excavations he finds discarded food that he pockets for lunch or dinner: He’s found a packet of deep-fried ravioli, spaghetti with chicken parmigiana, and even small gourmet chocolate doughnuts, which he savored with each sugary bite.

Once Simpson has gathered enough recyclables, he walks 3 miles to the nearest recycling center, cashes in his collection, then walks 3 miles back just as the sun is setting. On a humid summer day, when Venice Beach is teeming with sweaty, thirsty tourists, he can earn more than $12. Usually he collects about $7 for the day—just enough to buy a $6.56 bottle of cheap vodka from the local CVS. When CVS doesn’t have vodka on sale, he goes instead to Rite Aid, but limits those visits because that annoying lad who works there always threatens never to sell him alcohol again.

Each night he sits alone at a corner with his bottle and swigs the hours away until he passes out by 10:00 p.m. The next day, he repeats it all over again.

Once he procures the night’s drink, Simpson stretches out his sore legs and turns on a battery-operated radio to listen to the news or a baseball game. Each night he sits alone at a corner with his bottle and swigs the hours away until he passes out by 10:00 p.m. The next day, he repeats it all over again.

That’s Simpson’s daily routine—week after week, year after year. Every day he passes by bare-chested young men smacking volleyballs and beautiful women rollerblading, but he travels past with his nose in the trash bin, anxious to scrounge enough for that night’s drink. He can’t think about anything else. He doesn’t dare to.

My boyfriend and I visit Venice every Thursday to volunteer for a nonprofit organization that serves burritos to the homeless, and whenever we see Simpson shuffling by the boardwalk or standing in line for a burrito, we yell out, “Hey, John!” For the first several months since we met him, he would startle, as though he hadn’t heard his name spoken out loud for ages.

“How did you know my name?” he’d exclaim.

“You told us,” I would remind him. “Do you remember my name?”

Simpson would then scrunch his eyebrows, tap his chin, and think hard: “Uh ... I don’t know ... I’m so drunk. ... Is it ... Stacy? Stephanie?”

“Close,” I’d say—and then suggest he think of the actress Sophia Loren whenever he saw me, since, obviously, I was just as beautiful as her.

Over time, Simpson remembered our names, except for the few nights when he was too intoxicated to remember much of anything. Soon his face was brightening whenever he saw us, and the moment he had our ear, he would talk on and on, reminiscing about his childhood as a military brat, his high-school days as a choirboy, and his former girlfriend Joy, whom he dated for more than 10 years and who is now dead from alcoholism.

He loves movies, particularly musicals—Les Misérables, Oklahoma!, Hello, Dolly!—and sings the tunes for us without much coaxing. When the musical film La La Land came out, Simpson paid $15 to see it in a theater, but he was so exhausted from all his walking, and the theater seats so soft and comfortable, he fell asleep 20 minutes into the movie. He still regrets it: “I could have spent that $15 on vodka!”

Whenever we bid our goodbyes, Simpson looks sad, almost empty, and sometimes dazed, staring at some invisible memory or thought stirring in his liquor-pickled mind. Alcohol practically keeps him alive: After 30 years of heavy drinking, his body and brain have become dependent on alcohol to function. But alcohol also helps him go on mentally and emotionally: It blocks out reality.

All he has to focus on each day is drinking—a simple lifestyle, a one-track mindset that nudges away all nips of consciousness that he is a smart, funny, able-bodied man who’s killing himself day by day, without family or friends to be around when his soul finally leaves his poisoned body. And whenever his mind sinks into the gravity of his situation, his expression turns somber and surprised, as though he’s seeing himself for the first time.

That realization must be unbearable. So he takes another swig, and prays to pass out into a dreamless sleep.

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Sophia with her parents

Handout (Sophia with her parents)

Sophia's World

I’m Somebody’s child

This Thanksgiving, my earthly parents reminded me of my heavenly one

I love the smell of my parents’ house. I visited my parents in Northern Virginia this Thanksgiving, and the moment I walked in, I smelled the pungent, crisp whiff of my mother’s fresh-made kimchi—traditional Korean fermented cabbage, still raw and crunchy in the giant stainless steel bowl she uses to massage the vegetables with chili paste. As I kissed my father’s cheek hello, I smelled his familiar aftershave. Then I ran upstairs to kiss my mother, and smelled her sweet milky lotion. My mother, hearing the growl of my stomach, heated up my favorite chicken soup on the stove, and I inhaled the aroma of golden broth, sweet carrots, and earthy mushrooms.

This year was not easy for me. I realized that during a family dinner: While going around the table sharing what we were thankful for, I made a passing remark that it had been a hard year, and all of a sudden, hot salty liquid flowed from my eyes, surprising everyone, including me.

As a journalist for a Christian magazine, I meet a lot of people with inspiring testimonies—people who suffer much yet hold fast to their faith, people who glorify God through their work, ministry, and life. I also meet people who don’t know God and despair because of it, and I desire to tell them that their only hope and joy is found in Christ. Truth is, as a journalist I may observe, hear, and report such things, yet as a 30-year-old woman traveling through life, there are still many moments when I struggle to feel what I think I know to be true. I know and talk and write about God’s amazing love, but why do I so often not feel His love, or feel that His love is not enough?

I brought these conflicts with me when I arrived at my parents’ house. There, all sorts of senses immediately greeted me. It started with smells—the smell of my parents, the smell of comfort foods, the smell of freshly laundered sheets in my bedroom, cleaned and warmed for my arrival. Touch and sounds welcomed me too—my father’s plump and toasty hands on my shoulders as he prayed for me, my mother’s arm linked around mine as she told me her insights as a pastor’s wife, the laughter we shared over a silly joke, the hot water bottle on my belly that my mother prepared every night because she knows I get cold easily.

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He told them first to cry out, “Our Father who art in heaven.” That’s how I pray too, always beginning with “Heavenly Father.” And I remembered then why Jesus taught us to start all our prayers with “Our Father.” In this primal, instinctual, intimate call to God as Abba, we declare once again, in earshot of angels and demons, that we are the beloved, cherished children of a God who desires intimacy with us. But how distracted are our minds, how feeble our hearts, that we so often forget the love of our Father God! How easily we diminish it into something abstract and ritualized! How quickly we doubt it when we’re swaying in the currents of anxiety and fear and apathy!

In this primal, instinctual, intimate call to God as ‘Abba,’ we declare once again, in earshot of angels and demons, that we are the beloved, cherished children of a God who desires intimacy with us.

This Thanksgiving, through the smell and touch and taste and sound and sight of my earthly parents’ love, I once again felt the love of my heavenly Father. His is a real, present love that is all-giving, like my earthly parents’ love. I am a full-grown adult paying her own bills, yet I saw in everything my parents did their desire to give, give, give to me as much as they can. It’s miraculous, this love that parents have for their child: It comes naturally, it gives without conditions, it risks much for little in return. To me, that means this innate yet extraordinary love of a parent can come only from a sacred source, from Someone wholly good and beautiful.

On my last day, as I hugged and kissed my parents goodbye at the airport, I could sense their longing to hug me one more time, to hold my hand till the last minute. I checked in through the security gate, rolled my suitcase over to the escalator, then turned to wave at them one last time. I saw the crease around my parents’ aged eyes as they smiled and waved back, and I knew with a pang that I would never be able to pay back the tears, sweat, and aches they’ve given for me, nor would they want me to.

As I descended down the escalator out of sight, hot salty liquid once again flowed down my face, and continued to flow on the flight back to Los Angeles. But this time, it wasn’t because I’d had a hard year. It was because I realized that all throughout this year, even during the times when I didn’t feel it, God has been giving, giving, giving me His love—without fail, without conditions, without any payment of my own. My heavenly Father has been present all along. 

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 The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP

Commuters heading for their offices in Tokyo ( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP)

Sophia's World

Lonely in Japan

How can such a wealthy and technologically advanced nation feel so empty?

I recently went on a 16-day trip to Japan, partly for vacation, partly for work. I did all the touristy things—zipping through Tokyo on a six-hour bike tour, trekking “Hacksaw Ridge” in Okinawa, gawking at the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, and visiting the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto—but for the last six days, I stayed at a tiny studio in the outskirts of Tokyo and basically lived like a local. 

Every morning I ran by the Ebi River, where I passed the same fat cats and elderly couples taking their daily strolls. I stopped by the same supermarket and food stalls every evening, where I picked up overpriced produce and discounted sushi. I walked to the same subway station for my daily commute, weaving through housewives in designer coats, men in tailored black suits, and students in navy pleated skirts. I was surrounded by people all day, crushed between armpits in subways and smushed in crowded yakitori bars—and yet, I felt a strange loneliness each day. 

Someone at my church asked me if Japan is worth visiting. I said yes—it’s a beautiful country of mountains and volcanoes and islands, a distinguished civilization with thousands of years of history and culture. It has punctual-to-the-second bullet trains with heated seats, manicured public green spaces, and an unquenchable food scene where every dish is a work of art. Its people speak the world’s prettiest language and are mostly well-mannered, well-groomed model citizens who never eat while walking (too sloppy), never talk on the trains (too impolite), and never cut in line (unimaginable). Their public toilets even play bird-chirping music to drown out impolite noises from neighboring stalls.

But, I added, Japan also seems to me a country of great spiritual darkness and unhappiness. That’s not just me conjecturing. Local pastors and missionaries tell me Japan is a tough mission field—less than one half of a percent of the population is evangelical Christian, making Japan one of the least evangelized nations in the world despite the longtime presence and freedom of missionaries.

Several residents told me the Japanese are terribly unhappy people, and I believe it. The studio I rented had thin walls, and almost every night I heard my neighbor weeping so hard that she had to pause to gasp for air. Japan, with all its economic and technological advantages, ranked No. 51 in this year’s World Happiness Report (U.S. ranked No. 14, Canada tied for No. 9). 

Other recent research reported that Japanese aged 15-21 polled the unhappiest out of 35 mostly developed countries, next to South Korean teens. Suicide and social isolation continue to be serious issues: Japan’s suicide rate is the sixth highest in the world, and about 541,000 young Japanese are labeled as hikikomori, a term describing young people who seclude themselves in their rooms for months or years at a time—a troubling psychological and cultural phenomenon.

With all that unhappiness, the Japanese seek to latch on to something bigger than themselves. Virtually every neighborhood has its own Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine. Though more than half of the Japanese people say they’re nonreligious, they still find comfort in their traditions and gods: They swarm the temples and shrines to pray for good luck every New Year’s Day, to rub the smoke of incense onto their heads (for healing), to buy amulets and charms promising good health, favorable exam results, or happy families. Some temples must really rake in the money, what with all the visitors paying admission fees and tossing coins into offering boxes so that the gods will hear their prayers.

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