My first hours on the streets were the scariest minutes of my life. I was terrified. But this was a night I would never forget.
The fellow denizens of the streets were dead on their feet, but experience had taught them to keep moving to stay alert. I heard them chanting, "Gotta make it till sunrise."
I was on skid row that night. I chose to be with the people that God loves and nobody else wants. I have come to truly love the unlovable. It was one of the most staggering moments of my life, too.
Within hours, I saw rats the size of softballs, prostitution taking place in the port-a-potties. I found myself trying to talk and sleep with people I didn't even know.
The situation changed, though, when I pulled out my Bible. People screamed at me to tell them about my God! People from all walks of life began lining up for me to pray for them, to embrace and love them. It was then that I knew the power of God's Word was my shield on that dark night.
You see, I grew up in a preacher's home and knew at 16 years of age that God had called me to be a pastor. So, when I turned 20, I headed to Los Angeles with my dad, Tommy Barnett, who is a well-known pastor of a mega church in Phoenix, Ariz., to help turn around a struggling congregation of Bethel Temple. I had never been to Los Angeles and did not realize that I would find myself at a church that was in a hard-to-find and very dangerous neighborhood. I was ready, though, to preach my heart out and my mission was to "build God a great church."
The congregation went from 39 to zero in a few short months. I spent days in my apartment crying out to God and asking Him why He would not bring the people to church.
I felt I had failed.
One night God woke me and told me to walk to Echo Park. I didn't realize at the time that this was a place of crime, gangs, prostitutes and many homeless who had found the park to be their home. I asked God why he brought me here to see this. I kept yelling to Him, "You brought me here to build a great church."
At that moment I heard God speak to me. He told me that He "did not bring me here to build a great church but to build people -- these people. You build the people. I'll build the church. I don't ever want you to think about success again. Think about being a blessing. Success is obedience to your calling. I have called you to bless people. Love them. Heal them. Help them. Serve them."
This is my congregation. They just didn't know it yet.
For the past 15 years I have now been the Pastor to the Dream Center and Senior Pastor of the historic Angelus Temple. The congregation now has in excess of 7,000 weekly. The Dream Center is a 400,000-square foot building only a few blocks from Echo Park. The Dream Center's ministries reach more than 50,000 people each week through its multiple church services and more than 200 need-centered ministries. We have had literally thousands of people who were addicted, abused, prostituted, abandoned, disabled -- you name it, we've seen it. As of September 2003, there have been more than 150 dream centers established throughout the world modeled on this one. We have also added more than 200 more beds to house those who are so addicted in different areas of their lives. The Dream Center is a 24-hour hospital that provides free help and counseling, food, clothing and medical services to those in need. We are truly the church that never sleeps.
On my 15-year anniversary, God told me to go back and sleep with the people He had called me to love and serve on the streets of skid row. They are my cause. They are the reason I get out of bed each morning, the hope I have for making a difference in the world. I did not live there, but I belonged there. I was called to serve them.
God birthed a cause in me that has not only transformed my life over these years but has reached millions.
God has also birthed a cause inside of you that he wants you to embrace.
I tell you in my book that a transforming cause is never about you -- promoting yourself, achieving greater fame or fortune, experiencing more pleasure or comfort, amassing greater power. It is always about using the resources God has given you -- skills, relationships, experiences, money, time, intelligence and all the rest -- to make a positive impact on others. If you live for a cause greater than yourself, you will live a life of peace, joy, passion and lasting meaning. Proverbs 29:18 reads, "If people can't see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves; but when they attend to what He reveals, they are most blessed."
Take the journey with me to find your cause from the pages in my new book, The Cause Within You. You will read about my night on skid row and the inspirational and transformational stories of people's lives that have been changed when they realized the one great thing that God has created them to do in this world.