A Future in Compton

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By Hayley Newsom for Worldwide Challenge Magazine
  
NOTE: This is a beautiful story, from our ministry publication about the Torres family, part of our partnership ministry, The Compton Salvation Army.

Before first glimpse at morning light, she could hear her five children giggling at her and slowly realized her arms were raised, and she'd been singing in her sleep. It's not unusual for Lupe Torres to wake up singing these days. While many Americans are losing sleep over how they're going to make it through economic recession, Lupe, a single mom of five raising her family in Compton, Calif., rests well in God's good provision.When she first came to the Salvation Army church two years ago, she was pregnant, homeless and struggling to care for herself and her children in a city with twice the national average crime rate and 65 gangs within 10 square miles.

Today, she treats the church like a second home, caring for it and the people there, doing maintenance and helping with ministry programs. She and her family (Christina, 19; James, 16; Tina, 15; Felix, 11; Vicki, 2) are thriving in the love of the body of Christ.
Beginning at 8 a.m., 34 keys hang around Lupe's neck, jingling with the sound of responsibility as she travels to every corner of the church building—and today to the roof, to clean opossum bones out of the gutters again. Local cats have been dragging dinner up there, making a mess for Lupe to clean. She blows her hair out of her eyes as sweat dots her face. She works there every day, doing anything that needs doing, whether it's learning from the plumber how to snake the bathroom drains or speaking with someone in need.

Just two years ago, Lupe reluctantly came asking for help. Her pattern of despair and alcohol abuse was destroying her life and the life of her family. Her oldest daughter, Christina, remembers the rough years when she couldn't rely on her mom: "Nothing was really stable. Mom was losing control." Christina missed much of high school, having to take care of her younger brothers and sister. Distrusting Lupe's live-in boyfriend and angry at her mom's hopeless this-is-the-way-it-is attitude, Christina ran away in 2006 to live with her grandmother.
When Lupe lost her job as an assistant apartment manager and could not pay the rent, the family moved between shelters, with their belongings in storage. And when she could no longer afford the storage rental, the family's belongings were auctioned off—all their family photos, clothing—everything

“When I found out I was pregnant, it was like a bell went off," says Lupe. "Everything shattered." Desperate, Lupe went twice to the abortion clinic. But the first time her credit card wouldn't swipe. The clinic refused her the next time because she was already mid-term.
Five months pregnant and angry at the world, Lupe was on the bus with her kids when a sign caught her attention: "Video game tournament and FREE FOOD." Her hunger outweighing her shame, she coaxed her embarrassed kids off the bus at the next stop to walk back to the Salvation Army where the sign stood. Lupe remembers thinking, Salvation Army? Me? Nooo. That's for homeless people! But she realized she was homeless.

There on Compton Boulevard, Lupe met children's program director Charmian Gutierrez and the pastor of the Salvation Army church, Capt. Martin Ross. She immediately felt cared for by Charmian, who had once been homeless herself. Lupe told her she'd been jobless and turning to alcohol, and falling in a cycle of depression for many years. Before the family left, Charmian encouraged Lupe and her kids to come back for the Salvation Army church service the next day.

Lupe and her kids came. She says, "I came every Sunday and cried every Sunday. I felt heavy before; even my feet hurt." That spring, Lupe trusted Christ as her Savior. She says, "The more I gave my problems to Christ, the lighter I felt. When I cried at church, I was letting go."
Charmian and Capt. Ross invited Lupe to church for a six-week class called Steps to Change, one of several available from a program called New Focus. The program comes from Campus Crusade for Christ's compassionate ministry, Here's Life Inner City, and is presently used by 383 churches and ministries.

Just like any pastor, Capt. Ross meets many people like Lupe who come for help and need real life change, not a temporary handout. He wants them to grow from being takers to givers. The New Focus small group teaches people how.

Lupe learned her life would only change if she trusted Christ to work in her heart and gave Him control. "Those first days were like waking up," Lupe says. "Eating, sleeping, breathing the truth about God." Lupe's small group leader gave her guidance in simple things—to discern between needs and wants, and to save, using Scripture as a foundation. "It was a hard lesson to learn, to save," says Lupe. "I started saving $2 or $3 at a time, whatever I knew I could. I was used to spending money as soon as I got it." With God, Lupe was learning that she had a hope for a future.

Johndon Castro, HLIC staff member in Los Angeles, explains that people in poverty don't have enough to begin with, let alone save for the future. "It's hard for them to see that they have a future," Johndon says. "Saving a dollar here and there is a step of faith that there is a future to plan for." For Lupe, applying God's word to everyday choices was an act of faith.
She learned quickly. To teach her to save, her New Focus coach asked Lupe what she really wanted. The former rugby player never looked girlier than when she said she wanted a beautiful, new purse—black with hot pink lining and rhinestones. "I saved up to buy it," she says, "and when I did, I had a feeling I'd never had before—I accomplished something."

Lupe began doing maintenance at the church. Earning $9 an hour and faithfully saving what she could, Lupe eventually saved enough to buy a car and move her family out of the trailer, which had no running water and no electricity.

The change in Lupe's life surprised others as much it did herself. As the couple who owned the trailer saw the change in Lupe, she told them about New Focus and her new faith in Christ, and they began coming to the class. When Lupe talks to those who come to the church for help, she puts herself where they are, where she used to be: "I know what it's like to live on water, crackers and jelly—and to carry guilt."

A year after moving out, Christina joined her family at church. Still skeptical about the change she saw in her mom, she decided to move back home. After a time, she too became a Christian. About Lupe, she says, "I feel like she's my mom again." Lupe even dreams now of a new future—working one day as a master welder turning hard, ugly things into something beautiful: iron tabletops and doors. At the end of the day, Lupe goes to bed thankful. When she prays in bed, she thanks God for His faithful hand on her life and the life of her family. At the end of her prayers, she yells a final "Amen!" One by one, voices of her five children answer back with a yell from their rooms: "Amen." "Amen." "Amen." "Amen." "Amen."