If you live in Los Angeles, you’ve probably driven past a hulking 400,000 square foot building along the Hollywood freeway, the former Queen of Angels hospital.
In 1996, The Catholic Church sold that building and its nine-acre campus to a 22-year-old pastor named Matthew Barnett, who, alongside his pastor-father Tommy Barnett, founded The LA Dream Center – the church that never sleeps.
In his recent New York Times bestseller The Cause Within You, Matthew Barnett describes how it feels at age 22 to sign your name on the closing documents of a decrepit, $3.9 million facility in a rough LA neighborhood, that you don’t actually have the money to pay for.
Fast forward 16 years, the LA Dream Center is now the largest, non-profit food bank in Los Angeles. It serves 40,000 people every month through its 273 ministries designed to help the urban poor with homelessness, drug addiction, sexual slavery, food insecurity, prostitution and gang life.
Their story is a firm reminder that many Christians do much more than stand in line to eat chicken sandwiches, they just don’t make the news.
Barnett’s assistant, a former atheist named Todd, who became a Christian after witnessing the Dream Center in action, was so enthusiastic about his conversion he wrote a paper parsing a doctrinal question. Here’s what Todd said happened next in The Cause Within You:
When I finished the paper, I gave it to Pastor Matthew and told him how hard I’d worked on it and presented both sides of the argument. I told him I wanted him to tell me which it was: are we higher or lower than angels? He looked at me and said “Who cares? Who does this help? Whose life does this change?” And I said I didn’t know and he said, “Nobody! That’s who. Not one. Zero people. You know what you need to do with this? Get rid of it and go feed some hungry people. Then if you still need to know the answer to that question, ask Jesus after you die. For now, that stuff doesn’t matter. Find someone to help and take care of their needs.”
Todd is just one of many who have been swept up into Barnett’s army, doing exactly what Jesus told his followers to do – Peter do you love me? Well then, feed my sheep.
A few months ago, I was in LA and visited the Dream Center. Standing on the roof, overlooking the smoggy, gorgeous maw that is Los Angeles, they told me the place requires $600,000 a month to function. The website says, they do it without government funding, and the original $3.9 million has long been paid in full.
There are 700 people living on the Dream Center campus in various states of education, rehabilitation or crisis and they expect to house a thousand by year’s end. Recently, the LA County court system began remanding juvenile offenders into Dream Center programs. They may soon remand adults as well.
In case you missed that last part, I’ll say it again: The secular, criminal court system in California’s largest city is sending some of its convicts to a non-profit, non-government funded, Christian ministry, in lieu of jail time. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it works better.
That night I hustled over to the historic Angelus Temple in Echo Park, the Dream Center’s church home, which Barnett also leads.
All the people you never see in church were there: The dirty homeless woman with the plastic bags, the Hispanic teenager with tattoos on his neck and the skinny-jean clad urban hipsters. The band played a muscular David Crowder Band song, while a knot of young men bounced around down front praising Jesus Christ with an exuberance more common to Coachella than church.
It was the most fun I’ve had in months. The whole place, its culture, its vibe along with the mission: find a hurt and heal it, made me want to move to LA and take part. But of course, there are plenty of sheep to feed in Texas too.
Generally, sheep are kind of dumb and prone to wandering, especially when they’re hungry. It’s a lot easier to admonish a wandering lamb than it is to gather it up and feed it; and Jesus never said fight among yourselves over why the sheep are hungry, he just said to feed them.
Who knew there was a giant, green sheep pasture in downtown LA?