They came on foot, bicycle and wheelchair, drawn to the trio of singers improvising a classic call-and-response gospel chant as dusk fell in the evening quiet of a skid row street corner.
For 10 years, the Rev. Stephen Cue Jn-Marie, armed with a Bible, microphone, amplifier and folding chairs, has presided over this Friday night open-air service for homeless people, downtown welfare hotel residents and supporters from as far away as Orange County who join his “church without walls,” The Row.
At an anniversary celebration Saturday, 50 supporters and ministers joined Jn-Marie at another skid row corner, 5th and San Pedro streets, to call for a state of emergency that would bring California and federal housing and other resources into skid row’s intractable homeless community.
“This is something that should have been done a long time ago,” said the Rev. Walter Contreras, western U.S. vice president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and an activist with Los Angeles’ Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, whose members were well-represented at the event.
Pointing to a billboard from which a mentally ill homeless man fell to his death after police used a Taser on him in 2014, Jn-Marie noted that the corner was the site of several notorious killings. Assisted by other clergy, Jn-Marie performed an African-influenced libation ceremony, pouring oil and water on the street “to wash away the blood that is crying from the ground to God.”
Pete White of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an anti-poverty activist group on skid row, pointed at the glass towers of downtown in the near distance. “It’s ironic you see cranes and high-rises everywhere, and at the same time, so rise the tents in the street,” White said. “There is enough resources for everyone.”
Jn-Marie, 52, a Caribbean native, never knew his father, ran away from domestic violence in his home and sold drugs. He was also a Virgin Records recording artist with The College Boyz, a hip-hop group whose 1992 cut "Victim of the Ghetto” peaked at Billboard’s No. 1 hot rap single.
Inspired by a Malcolm X movie, Jn-Marie became a minister, serving at the Irvine-based megachurch Newsong and a Crenshaw district congregation before coming to skid row in 2006. Jn-Marie said he was never homeless but chose to live in his car briefly to better understand the plight of his congregants.
“This is a real unique ministry model,” said the Rev. Frank Jackson, who helped guide Jn-Marie at the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, a three-year program to help develop small ministries and faith-based groups in Long Beach, Santa Ana, Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles. Jn-Marie was a 2009 graduate, said Jackson, who took part in the libation.
Jn-Marie draws on his entertainment connections for funding, but most of the help he receives comes from volunteers, Jackson added. “It’s real grass-roots,” Jackson said.
“People from the outside come down and feed us and want to introduce us to God,” said General Jeff Page, a skid row activist and pioneering L.A. rap artist, who knew Jn-Marie when both were on the hip-hop performing circuit. “’For us to survive here, don’t you think God is with us already?”
Downtown resident Tom Grode, who attended the Friday night service, said that skid row is rife with missions and other faith-based organizations. “But this church has a credibility with people on the street that no other organization has,” Grode said.
Recently, Jn-Marie has played an increasingly active political role, speaking at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and denouncing controversial police shooting deaths.
“Jesus is the ultimate activist,” Jn-Marie said last week. During his Friday night service, he wove Bible verses and a discussion of keeping the Sabbath with political polemic.
“Have you ever heard of institutional racism?” he said to “amens” from the several dozen congregants sitting in folding chairs, or standing with their palms outstretched toward the minister. “That’s why we fight for justice.”
“Growing up in L.A., religion wasn’t cool,” Page said. “We’re making it cool.”