Every Sunday afternoon, a team of Forge Hollywood residents take to Hollywood Boulevard and share meal with the local homeless community living in tents along the 101 Freeway. The sight of a team handing out food to locals living on the street is not necessarily unique in Hollywood. Many feel a burden to care for the chronically and situationally homeless in Los Angeles and are well aware that the most recent citywide count revealed a 23% increase in homeless residents over the past 12 months. What is unique, is to see a team of people taking food orders, cooking alongside the homeless and then sharing the meal together over a long folding table right on the boulevard sidewalk. It is a scene right out of Heaven itself; rich and poor, successful and downtrodden, all sharing their laughter and lives together in the intimate communion of a common meal.
The story begins, oddly enough, with a man who was formerly homeless himself and the hope he found in the power of grapefruit.
At his lowest point, Jason Brown was 100 pounds overweight, unemployed, and living out of his car around the side streets of Hollywood. His first steady job in months came when a security guard company hired him to work the lobby of the historic Pacific Theater in the heart of Hollywood on Sundays while a church met in that space. As Jason connected with the church community of Ecclesia Hollywood, he began to rediscover his childhood faith. A desire for health and transformation was reborn within him. The job led to a steady paycheck, the paycheck to a new apartment and eventually Jason was trying to lose the weight he had gained amidst his depression and dislocation. A friend suggested he begin eating grapefruits as a healthy snack to increase his metabolism.
Within weeks Jason became known as the “Grapefruit Guy” carrying one with him wherever he went. As Jason’s physical habits became healthier, he also re-centered his life around Jesus and that change bore fruits of its own. Jason wanted to find a way to offer the love and hope of Jesus to those still on the streets of Hollywood. Since Jason’s radical changes were so tied to healthy eating and a renewed commitment to Christ, he thought it appropriate to use food as a way to build relationships. Armed with a brown bag of grapefruits, Jason began walking the streets after his shifts as a security guard offering the fruit and trying to make new friends. To his church friends, he jokingly called his crusade, “The Grapefruit Gospel.” Much to Jason’s dismay, he learned quickly that grapefruits were not necessarily everyone, or anyone, else’s favorite fruit.
A friend who was in the midst of the inaugural Forge Hollywood residency program, invited Jason to join her at one of the weekend intensives. There, Alan and Deb Hirsch shared about how missionaries can't assume what people need but rather must take time to listen and learn what good news is for the people to whom we are sent. At a follow up lunch with Hub Director, Jon Ritner, Jason was challenged to think through how to contextualize the gift of grapefruit into something that would be good news for other homeless who were rejecting his offer.
The next week, Jason took back to the streets with his grapefruit. But rather than passing them out, he used it as a way of sharing his love for healthy, comfort food and asking a new question, “What is your favorite comfort food from childhood that always reminds you of home?” People lit up sharing about their mother’s chicken pot pie, or their abuela’s cheese enchiladas. Then without much warning, Jason asked them if he could prepare that meal for them and bring it back next week to eat together?
In Jason’s own words “I seek to reconnect an identity that may have been lost through living on the streets by evoking good memories of times past and the love they received from someone they cared about via a comfort meal. We serve those on the streets for no other reason than for who they are in God's image, to remind them that they are loved, and that they are not forgotten. We turn food into love.”
Today, Jason himself is a resident in a Forge Hollywood cohort and is deepening his theological understanding of just how Christ-like his missional incarnational approach to sharing the gospel really is. He has recruited 2 other Forge Tribe members to join him and together they serve as the Grapefruit Gospel core team that leads volunteers each Sunday afternoon out to break bread with new and old friends. The team now invites the individual who set the meal’s menu to join the team in shopping for ingredients and helping prepare the meal alongside them, adding even more relational interaction and dignity to the experience.
The weekly meal has led to new jobs for some residents, placement in local housing assistance programs, and deep discussions about the how they see God working in their lives amidst the struggles of their situations. Volunteers often stop by the encampment on their own during the week to check in with their new friends and drop off a pair of boots a young man needs for a job interview or a used bike to help another get to their new job site.
As for Jason, he now serves as the Safety and Security Manager at WET Designs, the premier designer of epic, outdoor commercial fountains like the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He initiated a volunteer program at WET and often brings colleagues who are not yet followers of Jesus with him to serve on Sundays. This Thanksgiving, Jason coordinated an effort to distribute 300 meals donated by In ‘N Out Burgers to those living on the streets of Hollywood. But in typical healthy living fashion, Jason worked with a local food bank to supplement the burgers and cokes with healthy side dishes. He also serves as Ecclesia’s coordinator for the annual Winter Refuge, a six week winter shelter in which local churches cook and share 2 meals a day with it’s 30-50 residents.
If you are ever passing through Hollywood by on a Sunday afternoon and see a community sitting together on the sidewalk sharing a meal together, stop and say Hello to Jason. You can’t miss him, he still carries a grapefruit with him wherever he goes.