Dream Center Meets Crisis Head-On
In 1994, Matthew Barnett, then 20 years old, took the helm of a small Filipino Assemblies of God church in downtown Los Angeles. To connect with the neighborhood, he put his desk on the sidewalk and bought grocery items with his own money to give to local families.
“I had a little convenience store on my desk and gave things away as an outreach to maybe a dozen people a week in the community,” Barnett recalls. “That’s where it started.”
Twenty-six years later, the Los Angeles Dream Center, which has grown into one of the world’s best-known and most-emulated ministries, is feeding the poor of Los Angeles during the COVID-19 crisis — and Barnett says it feels like coming full circle.
“It has brought me back to day one of ministry in Los Angeles,” he says.
The Dream Center normally serves meals and gives groceries to thousands of people per week, but with the city of Los Angeles in lockdown, the ministry, housed in a prominent former-hospital alongside Highway 101, has gone into overdrive. For 11 hours a day, seven days a week since mid-March, a line of vehicles has wound through the Dream Center parking lot for drivers to receive hot meals, fresh fruit, pizzas, Chick-fil-A meals, frankfurters, barbecue sandwiches, and more from volunteers wearing face masks and keeping as much distance as they can. They hand food through car windows, give “air high-fives,” and wave the cars on.
“We have a big army and a system in place to churn out a lot of stuff, but this is next level,” says Barnett.
The Dream Center is feeding around 7,000 people a day at a critical time when Los Angeles public schools — the source of two meals a day for many students — have shut down. The ministry normally serves 1,000 meals a day. Its kitchen workers, who are men in its rehabilitation programs, already had their food-handler licenses.
The Dream Center led the way among megachurches going online with services at the onset of the crisis. Its Thursday evening gathering at Angelus Temple is one of its most popular, but when Barnett heard city leaders talking about shutting the city down, and sensed fear escalating in the community, he and the church team wanted to get ahead of the curve.
“Sometimes evangelism is cooperation,” he says.
On March 12, Barnett preached to a video camera in an empty Angelus Temple. On March 16, the Dream Center began giving hot meals to all who would come. Demand ran high, and church representatives saw a different kind of person come for help — not just those in persistent poverty, but people who had lost jobs.
“Obviously, the poorest of the poor are coming through that line, but some are saying, I just got laid off. I’m scared to death. I never thought I’d be in a line like this,” Barnett relates. “Everyone’s trying to save a little money.”
By mid-week, the volume of cars “was getting kind of scary,” Barnett says. “People were showing up nonstop.”
Surges followed news cycles and announcements, and became hard to predict. But donations — also hard to forecast — came from unexpected places. Stores and restaurants temporarily shutting down offered large amounts of food. Several local Chick-fil-A restaurants sent 1,800 chicken sandwiches a week. A local hot dog stand gave 2,500 franks. Christian rapper Kanye West sent a donation, as did actress-producer Roma Downey, and Los Angeles Dodgers players Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner. Turner bought food at full price from local restaurants, which are limited to takeout service, and donated it all to the Dream Center, which is located near Dodger Stadium.
Barnett says the Dream Center has received donations from fashion bloggers, popular YouTubers, and many non-Christians.
“Compassion is coming from places we’ve never seen before,” he says. “Typically, we get a lot of church support, but churches are going through their own personal armageddons right now. They are struggling to survive, like all of us are. Our support is coming more from the local Los Angeles community and strange places I never would expect.”
Indeed, all short-term missions trips to the Dream Center, which are a source of revenue for the ministry, have been canceled, leaving a hole in the budget that will need to be filled. Also negated are revenue-producing speaking engagements for Matthew and his father, Tommy, the co-founder of the Dream Center.
The outbreak has meant rewriting the rules of ministry engagement in a time of “social distancing.”
“We can’t have major quantities of volunteers, which makes it hard,” Matthew says. “We have to have a smaller group to execute the plan because of gathering rules. Nobody can linger on campus, so we move cars through really fast. It’s not super-personal like we’re used to. The endurance of our people has been extraordinary.”
In high demand are diapers, and the Dream Center, with Downey’s help in particular, is giving away thousands of packs per week.
However, every 30 minutes or so, someone comes through the line to give a donation, not to receive items.
“We have people showing up bringing loaves of bread, pasta, canned foods, milk, pinto beans,” Barnett says. “It’s incredible.”
The Dream Center encourages needy people to come through the line three times a day for hot meals.
“We want families to save money during this time because we know the other shoe is going to drop,” Barnett says. “A lot of people are going to wake up in a couple of weeks to the reality that they’re going to be laid off. I don’t think the hardest has hit us yet.”
Barnett is in regular contact with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Mitch 0’Farrell the local city council member who has come several times to hand out food.
“Our councilman and mayor keep saying, ‘Don’t shut down no matter what. You are definitely an essential service,’” Barnett says. “We have to listen to the news cycle in one ear and respond to the need with the other.”
On a personal level, nonstop ministry to a quarantined city has been taxing. Barnett has found it difficult as a father to stay engaged with his two children.
“It’s very challenging to shut it off when I get home,” Barnett says. “I’ve asked my children to please forgive me in advance.”
The Los Angeles Times recently ran a large photo of a Dream Center volunteer serving a family in their auto, and Barnett’s Instagram account brims with multiple videos a day showing what is taking place there. While giving an interview, Barnett received a text that a Convoy of Hope truck had just arrived with 30,000 pounds of food.
“That kind of stuff lets us believe we can make it through,” Barnett says. He pledges that the Dream Center will operate daily through the end of the school year.
“It’s the mentality of our church to be 24/7,” Barnett says. “Half the battle is to be available. There’s a certain kind of assurance the community has when it keeps seeing the church there.”