I met Chang at the Hippie Kitchen in LA, when I was complaining. I was cutting onions after watering a littered garden for an hour. Distracted by my soiled pants, I had noticed but not engaged this peaceful-faced man with round glasses and a humble, healthy build. Tears invoked by the pungent air and my yawning trickled onto the bustling chopping board in front of me. Extra-salty salad. “Damn eyes. Impossible to work at full capacity when you’re tired and chopping onions,” I remarked to the company. Giggles of agreement.
“Heather, this is Chang. He’s new and volunteering this morning. Can you show him around?”
“Hey, Chang, you from around here?”
“I was from Seoul. Now I am from the Row.”
Like single mothers with five children who work two jobs, and war veterans who work for peace, volunteers at the soup kitchen who live on Skid Row bruise hearts because they defy impossibility, because their lucidity and energy within a circle of well-rested, reluctantly uncomfortable servers transcends the chaos of their circumstances.
Chang studied theology at a premiere Christian university in South Korea. A man of intellectual and fiercely genuine compassion, he fulfilled a dream to leave his home for Los Angeles, the City of Angels, with the intention of living not for the homeless, but with them.
He planted his pack in the Row, amid concrete slabs staked out with hastily scribbled cardboard signs, next to plastic bags that had become tents: “Jaynie’s Turf.” “Not Abandoned—Do Not Remove Belongings.” “Residence of Dutch and Tara Brown.” Chang dragged through his first night serenaded by drug sales and the uninhibited cackle-screams of destitute sleeplessness.
Though it can’t be said he woke up, because he never went to sleep, he marked the beginning of the next day by walking a few blocks to the first tendrils of LA gentrification. Third Street, where new and relentless $2,000 lofts and boulangeries wince at crumbling social services on sewage-stained sidewalks, fogs the senses. Chang, having just eaten his fill at the Hippie Kitchen, sat down on the concrete far enough from an up-and-coming cafe not to bother the customers, and began to observe. He observed hungry black men with permanently angled faces shaking their cups asking for change, while young white and Asian folks gazed elsewhere as they passed. In their hands, five, ten, sixteen ice-blended drinks, he counted. Sixteen. Each worth $5-6. That feeds how many families at home? Don’t they know someone sees them? They say they don’t give money because he might buy drugs. But I’d rather a poor man buy drugs to appease his terrors than a rich man buy a coffee to pass the time.
Chang didn’t stay in LA very long. He was headed back to Korea for the birth of a nephew. On his final night, he came to mass and potluck at the Catholic Worker. During a period of open praying for the world, I heard him mumble through tears.
“When I first came to the City of Angels, I saw only pain. But here at this house, I have found angels.”