Essential Service

Staff at the Dream Center help thousands every day in Los Angeles, California. (Facebook/The Dream Center)

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a Christian ministry has emerged as one of the greatest organizations serving the poor and needy in Los Angeles, California. The Los Angeles Dream Center—founded by Pastor Matthew Barnett and his father, Pastor Tommy Barnett—made headlines last month after the center began feeding thousands who were left without food after the closure of the Los Angeles Unified School District. In the weeks since, the Dream Center has handed out more than 190,000 meals, according to estimates by Matthew Barnett.

"[We opened] an 11 hours a day, seven days a week drive-thru for all the families who have been out of food since the school closure in the LA school district, which is the second largest in America," Barnett says. "It's the poorest school district in the country. So when they shut down the school system, what happened was kids who relied upon two meals a day are no longer getting those meals. So we just decided to step up three days after the school district made their announcement, and we put ourselves on the line and said, 'We're going to start feeding people for 11 hours straight come Monday.'"

Los Angeles' lockdown orders—some of the strictest in the nation—have forced Dream Center staff to create new systems to meet needs. Factors like maintaining a six-foot distance, operating with a small staff and shortening every encounter to 30 seconds or less has changed the way the ministry looks. But the impact is still the same—if not better than ever.

Barnett says the need has been greater than they anticipated, but God's grace has miraculously sustained them through it and brought them resources when they most needed them. As a result, they have been able to meet the physical and spiritual needs of one of the largest cities in America—and be a tremendous witness for God before an unbelieving world.

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"It's the most remarkable era of our lives," Barnett says. "And we're just kind of walking on water and not even realizing it, but we don't want to take our eyes off Jesus for a second, because we've got a lot of people to help. We want to keep on walking on water and doing the impossible in His love and in His grace."

Though current circumstances seem dire, Barnett says he's keeping a hopeful, eternal perspective. For anyone discouraged or devastated by illness, unemployment and loss of vocation, Barnett has an encouraging word—and a practical exercise.

"Take a piece of paper and look back over your life and remember all the times that God brought you through a situation you didn't think you could get through," Barnett says. "... I did that the other day. I wrote a list, and I was shocked at how many times I really thought that I'd come to the end only to find out that God used it ... as a brand-new beginning to something else. So I would just encourage everyone to go on a little history lesson of the nature of God and how He's brought you through, because He's going to do it again."

Barnett spoke to Charisma about how the Dream Center is serving Los Angeles and why it's important for believers to follow the Holy Spirit outside of their comfort zones.

Into the City

Dream Center was well-positioned to help the Los Angeles community, thanks to its long history of helping the city.

"We're basically in lockdown, but our mayor and our councilmen love the Dream Center so much," Barnett says. "They know that we love the Lord, they know that we're Christian and that we've been a part of the institution of the city for so long. So they called us an "essential service"—which means in addition to pharmacies and grocery stores, the Dream Center is listed on the map as one of the places they are allowing to stay open. It feels a little bit like Joseph in the Bible, feeding people during the famine and even having the approval of the government [to do so]."

Still, the scope of this project dwarfs any previous Dream Center project. Though the team began planning for this possibility around the time the school district began discussing its closing, Barnett says it was truly a leap of faith when they declared their intent to feed thousands. Barnett preemptively closed the church to prevent the spread of COVID-19—becoming one of the first megachurches in the country to do so—and pivoted focus to food distribution. But all their preparation paled in comparison to the size of the demand.

"The biggest move was to get all of our church and all of our troops in alignment to get ready for [that first] Monday," Barnett says. "We thought there'd be a few hundred. But the first day we opened up, it was like wildfire."

He says the Dream Center has relied on miracles and God's provision—often in the form of donations from believers—to meet the city's needs. (Barnett asks those who can and feel so led to make a one-time gift of $20 at dreamcenter.org.) He says they have also received significant media attention, thanks to high-profile donors like Kanye West, Patricia Heaton and Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner.

"I mean, it's mobilized LA," Barnett says. "I think it's been one of the greatest witnessing tools we've ever had as a ministry, where people say, 'You guys are still doing this? How are you able to do this?' Just when we think we're short, a truck or an 18-wheeler pulls up. I know there's a God, and I've seen Him move in mighty ways, but there's just something about what's going on here that makes me look up at God and say, 'Are you kidding me? You just did it one more time.'"

Beyond meeting food needs, the Dream Center has met community needs in plenty of other ways through this crisis. Barnett describes the Dream Center as a "hospital" of sorts that provides help to those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and other hardships. Many of the people handling food and preparing meals are men and women enrolled in Dream Center's recovery program, who were licensed and trained while recovering.

"They are feeding thousands, and they are having revival down there and worshipping the Lord," Barnett says. "These are guys that were sentenced to one year of the Dream Center—for many, instead of a 10-year prison sentence—and they're down there leading a revival of feeding. One of the most broken demographics is serving out of their brokenness and helping others."

Barnett says the ministry has also been sending staff to visit senior citizens in their homes, as those 65 years or older are completely quarantined in Los Angeles. On March 30, Barnett and other leaders visited 320 seniors in their homes to encourage them with love and care packages.

Finally, among families who repeatedly receive meals at the Dream Center, Barnett says relationships have formed that will lead to deeper evangelistic conversations.

"One of the only organizations left standing for them in this time of need—offering something free of charge—is the church," he says. "So the first wave of witness was just staying there and being there for people, and now the next wave is letting them know [about Jesus]. Many of them are logging on to online services. ... We met their needs first, and now their hearts are open to ministry."

Out of Comfort

Barnett says his own approach to ministry was, in many ways, shaped by his father's. He remembers vividly how, on the opening day of a new church building, his father got in his car, drove to the housing projects and picked up a family to bring them to church.

"Dad, you've got staff to do that," Barnett remembers saying. "You've got people to do that. Why are we picking up families in our car and bringing them to church?"

His dad's response changed his life: "Son, the most important thing you could ever do in preaching is not to prepare your sermon, but to prepare your heart. By helping people, I prepare my heart to preach."

Barnett believes that the heart can only be prepared by "putting yourself in someone else's world."

"I force myself to be around need," he says. "It doesn't have to be all day every day. But I walk around the campus and talk to people who are broken and hurting. Putting yourself in situations that require you to be compassionate allows you to become compassionate. In the middle of managing this major hospital that's going on, I try to still stay close to the heartbeat of humanity and to their needs."

In his new book, One Small Step: The Life-Changing Adventure of Following God's Nudges, Barnett says it's important to stay alert to the Holy Spirit's "nudging." He says you can usually identify when God is asking you to do something, because that thing will take you out of your comfort zone.

"Usually, it's something that's bigger than what you can do," Barnett says. "It's something that really test your level of comfort. It's scary. ... What stops us responding to the nudge oftentimes is that we tend to rationalize all the reasons why we can't do something. We'll get something from the Holy Spirit, and it's empowering and exciting, and then we'll kind of dissect it for too long and not take the first step of faith, and we end up rationalizing ourselves out of it. Usually we reason that it doesn't seem very responsible, when the truth is the most responsible thing you could do is listening to what God calls you to do."

Barnett says the Dream Center's food distribution ministry started as a simple nudge: "On Monday, let's feed people." He had no idea what God would do with that simple impulse, but he obeyed—and the city has been blessed as a result.

"In my life, every nudge that has to do with helping hurting people does not come from me, because that's not the general flow of my life to get up and think that way," Barnett says. "But there are impressions all day from the Spirit that I've just learned to respond to—to say yes to more things. You know, I'd rather fail by saying yes to helping people than spend the rest of my life trying to figure out why I can't do something."

And Barnett remains hopeful that even this pandemic can be used for God's ultimate glorification, through standing as a testament to His goodness and faithfulness for the next generation.

"Many of the older members of the faith can talk of those stories about what they've been through in life, and it's tough," Barnett says. "But some of these young people are starting to say, 'Oh my goodness, I now see the reality of how great God is. Because I've seen him move.' When [Goliath] was talking to people every day, intimidating them, it just took one person to pick up some rocks and start throwing. I love how David even told the giant what he was about to do before he even did. He was prophesying life on the other side of the giant. And I just want to encourage readers: You're up against a huge giant right now, but just prophesy. Pick up a rock of kindness, a rock of gratitude, a rock of praise, and just start throwing whatever you've got at whatever giant stands in your way."

Taylor Berglund is the associate editor of Charisma Magazine and the host of several shows on the Charisma Podcast Network.

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