HOPE Church brings southern hospitality to the Los Angeles homeless community
Words by Erwin Davis III
California has long been associated with, “The Place Where Dreams Come True.” But for some, those dreams turn into inescapable nightmares. Of the estimated 151,000 unhoused individuals in Los Angeles and L.A. County, 38% are chronically homeless; 12% are under the age of 18, and 20% live in family units headed by a single mother.
Here in the South, we understand the value and importance of those three things—stability, a good upbringing, and family—in living a good life. Landing at LAX, Cheryl Cockrell, along with her daughter Erin Claire and volunteers from Tupelo’s HOPE Church, understand this also. They glide through the palm-lined boulevards and landmarks of mainstream Los Angeles on an expedition beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to offer the South’s number one resource to communities less fortunate: hospitality.
They’re on their way to the Dream Center—a nonprofit organization located in L.A. which uses everything from education, jail outreach, ministry services, and foster care to support and uplift those in need.
About 2,000 miles from the eastern Mississippi sanctuary, the Dream Center has partnered with the group of southern hearts on an annual mission trip to offer resources, meals, and kindness to the communities of Eastern and Central Los Angeles’s less fortunate.
“I had just finished reading Matthew Barnett’s book, The Cause Within You,” Cockrell says while remembering how her mission to serve got started a half-decade ago. Barnett is one of the pastoral founders of the organization, and Cheryl says the fire was lit under her to see the mission depicted in the book for herself.
She’s never looked back.
“I think about Psalm 34:18. ‘The Lord is close to the broken hearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.’ I don’t want to ever miss an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus. No matter where I am.” she says.
Food trucks line the streets west of Skid Row where the volunteers work to fill every stomach in sight. Even in the recourse of a pandemic, the altruistic message is heard loud and clear by those receiving such gifts. Faces of all ages, colors, experiences, and dreams gather on the square where the team works. Children dance and buzz with excitement after spotting the Dream Center’s convoy.
The group spots a woman under an overpass being asked to move her tent. She’s distraught, as she feels isolated by the authorities while others are permitted to stay. Noticing the opportunity to offer hope, Cheryl and her daughter stop to offer supplies and conversation to the seventy-year old, Maria. The woman’s soul appears to ascend as she praises the unit with words of adoration before asking them to pray for her existential recovery.
They repeat this pattern of giving back every day for a week while in the city. Every evening, the glorious sun sets on the city of Los Angeles and the Dream Center. This means that the ultimate service of the center comes into effect. The organization houses an estimated 500 individuals every night year-round. The tranquil faces of souls who’ve gone too long without a safe roof over their head is only amplified by the knowledge that their bellies are also full. Cheryl and her team sleep in the same facility while they occupy the campus—further proving that the best way to show someone you care is to walk a bit in their shoes.
Cockrell has ventured west for the last five years on the mission, outside of 2020. She says of the calling to help others, “It’s just something I told myself I was going to do and take my kids to be a part of.” Her youngest daughter, Erin Claire, or E.C., follows in her mother’s path by ensuring the next generation of Cockrell women are just as mindful of their obligation to pay-it-forward as the first.
“My mom has a servant’s heart, and one that I admire,” says the twenty year-old. “I am forever changed by my time spent with her here, and I’m so thankful I was able to follow in her footsteps by serving the city of Los Angeles.”
As the week comes to a close and the mission’s services conclude, Cheryl hugs and embraces the staff at the Dream Center as well as those new souls she, and her Tupelo family, have helped bring hope to.
“I always remember the people I meet here every year. We go home and we get to leave, but I always remind myself that just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean that it’s over. I never want to forget what I saw here, and I pray I never get too distracted to recognize it when I see it.”
Only there a brief time, the mission has given the people of the communities they served something more than food and greater than a helping hand. Inside of their hearts and memories, there is now a picture—framed with a golden edge. In it, there are only smiling faces of children, thoughts of bellies full of love, and dreams of hope rekindled.
On the bottom of the frame inscribed: y’all come back, now.
All numbers and figures reporting on the state of poverty in Los Angeles & LA County were provided by the Los Angeles Almanac at www.laalmanac.com.
Learn how you can help at www.dreamcenter.org.