Monday, April 18, 2011
When Pastor Shawn put a television show on the overhead and encouraged us to tune in, I instinctively turned to my iPhone, which at the time was opened to the Bible. I tapped another app’s icon and right there from the sanctuary remotely set my DVR to record the program. Sunday night. Eight PM. ABC. We were about a hundred miles from home.
Generally, I only look at the Bible on my mobile device while in church. It took me awhile to do that even. I worried that my fellow congregants might think I was Googling or texting or maybe playing a round of Angry Birds. I’ll confess to a feeling of self-congratulatory pride when the app displayed the thinking animation as it went out to the Internet to find my house and then returned the message “your program is set to record.” I wanted to high-five someone, but thought better of that. It would be disruptive.
So I turned back to my online Bible (NIV), and resumed listening to the sermon.
That week, I noticed the program on our “recorded” list. We decided to check it out. I punched it up via remote. I don’t know where they found Ali Brown. They introduced her as a highly successful entrepreneur who on her own built a multi-million dollar business. It had something to do with motivational training online, and from the looks of her house and her guarded gate life style, uptown wardrobe and afternoon Chardonnay, she seemed to be a casting agent’s dream. The camera loved her; trim and fit and pampered. She filled the bill for prime time.
“Reality television” isn’t my specialty, I’ll admit. (When I have tuned in, it is so tightly scripted and highly edited that it doesn’t seem much like reality to me.) But Pastor Shawn gave us the thumbs up on this one and he seems like a pretty savvy guy.
Soon, we got the point. For a week, Ali would exit her upscale community of Marina del Rey and walk the streets of Venice Beach. (Both of these neighborhoods I knew well years ago back when we lived on that side of town. I served as an LAPD Chaplain in those days, working the late night shift in Venice.) Ali scrubbed off the make-up, tied up her long hair in a ponytail, pulled down on the bill of a baseball cap, found some tattered clothes and for a few days pretended to be a starving student making a documentary film on street life. (She had to have an excuse for the camera crew.) They gave her seventy-five dollars cash and a one-room apartment near the waterfront and told her she would have to make do. That would be her expense account for the week.
There was another secret in the set up. Ali’s assignment was to find individuals or groups reaching out to this seedy beach community populated by lost, wandering, sometimes homeless people, many of whom come from all over the nation with a last-ditch California dream. She would, in the end, open her personal checkbook and make a substantial contribution to her favorite non-profit enterprise. Her true identity would be revealed and she would surprise the organization’s workers.
The camera made sure we understood the contrast between the cluttered boardwalk of Venice Beach and the posh fitness center and wine bar and dress shops of Marina del Rey. Ali checked out her sparsely furnished apartment, counted her cash and hit the breezy palm tree lined sidewalk between storefront and sand.
At first, she was uncomfortable talking to the quirky street people of Venice. She strolled by Muscle Beach. She had stepped way out of her comfort zone. But before long, dodging bicycles and skateboards and strollers and shopping carts, she settled at a park bench and opened up the conversation. She listened. She found real people, with real stories, folks who were more than happy to speak as the camera captured the conversation. She asked one, “Where do you go to eat?” She thus found an out-of-the-way shelter (Bread and Roses) providing free hot meals, restaurant style, for hungry folks. She volunteered to serve. The privileged forty-something entrepreneur in a baseball cap and zippered sweatshirt jumped right in to the systematic chaos.
All in all, limiting her costs to her budget, she stumbled across several unlikely organizations, one of them a group providing medical care and addiction rehabilitation treatment (Common Ground). She spoke to several weathered young people who were rescued from sure calamity. Later, she accompanied other new acquaintances in a van to drop in on folks afflicted with degenerative muscular disease, Lou Gehrig’s. Their purpose: to provide “serenity, solace and smiles” with haircuts, manicures and facials for the ALS victims who were restricted to hospital beds in all but forgotten back bedrooms (Beauty Bus).
When Ali volunteered at Harvest House, she met Pastor Shawn’s friend, Jennifer Jensen. (Now we understood why we got that Sunday morning recommendation to watch.) Just off the boardwalk at Venice Beach, Jennifer takes in homeless, pregnant women. Many young. Some with infants. She and her staff provide a home and delivery and infant care classes. On Ali’s first day, she was asked to watch over a one-month-old little girl. At first, the seasoned businesswoman balked. But soon, she relaxed, and held the bundled up child close. Then, she spoke with compassion to several frightened, young soon-to-be moms. She held their babies. She was overcome with emotion.
At the end of the week, she sat down with her “supervisor” at Harvest House, Jennifer, and confessed that the cameras were not for a documentary. Rather, as a part of ABC’s Secret Millionaire, she had been on the hunt all week for a worthy charity. She found it. She produced a check for fifty thousand dollars. Jennifer was stunned.
She wept. Ali wept. We wept.
Pastor Shawn was right. Transformation happens. Without warning, this reality show I set to record during a church service documented something I learned along time ago. It was powerful. Drop the pretense. Step out. Care. Listen. Touch. Give.
You will be changed.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011