By: Colin Berry
It's 7:00 pm on a Wednesday night at the corner of 6th and San Pedro in L.A.'s Skid Row, and the Central City Community Church of the Nazarene is nearly full. Folks here tonight come from the neighborhood: they live in SROs or low-rent apartments, or in makeshift shelters on the street. Ranging from teens to elders, many of them scrape by on government assistance, battling addictions or health problems.
Tonight, however, in this big, fluorescent-lit room, almost all of them seem to be having a good time. It's karaoke night, and at the microphone, a singer named Moses, in a bright red shirt, is belting out a Christmas classic.
Central City has hosted a karaoke night for 17 years, and the force behind it is Tony Stallworth, the church's senior pastor. Years ago Stallworth ran his own karaoke business, but decided to bring it to the church. Now he sets up the equipment, and his wife, Lucy, is the emcee.
Pastor Tony (as he's known) says that out in the world, most of the people here tonight would be looked down on, or likely ignored.
"But in here they can be heard, they can sing a song, and when they're done, everybody claps for them," he says. "And they get that big, toothless smile. They're just so happy and full of joy."
After a spirited cover of "All I Need," a blue-eyed singer who calls himself Sidewalk Slim -- his real name is Ronny Shepherd -- says he's been coming here for 15 years. He's a Temptations man by nature, he explains, but says what he chooses to sing on any given night can change in the moment.
"I can go from Johnny Cash to Kenny Rogers, or I can go for 'Sweet Georgia Brown' - it all depends on how I feel," Shepherd explains.
A woman who just calls herself Debra is here with her husband and her dog.
"I'm not a singer," she says, laughing, "but tonight I felt like singing, and I had fun doing it."
Pastor Tony knows his flock intimately. He's been homeless himself, pushing everything he owned in a shopping cart around Skid Row for two years.
"God got a hold of me and changed my life," he recalls. "But it's funny the way he works things out. He gets ahold of you, cleans you up, and puts you right back down in the neighborhood to let people know that there's a way out."
The night of singing is punctuated twice -- at 8 o'clock for a prayer circle and at 9 o'clock for a group line dance. The whole crowd joins in, dancing and clapping in unison.
Central City's karaoke night connects with the urban poor spiritually and emotionally. Outreach director Sophia Cabido says her organization also offers counseling, pet-assisted therapy, after-school programming, and even a hot meal for people in need. Together, she says, the church and its outreach make a big impact on the community.
Red-shirted Moses -- who sang "White Christmas" -- says he's been coming to karaoke for about six months. He admits he's not a great singer, but says after the show, he'll help stack chairs and put away equipment.
"Ever since I been coming here, I've also been attending church on Sundays," he says. "I just believe it's time for me to give back."
For Pastor Tony, his prayers are consistent: he's asking God for the money to keep Central City afloat. In the meantime, he says the folks who've come here tonight to sing and dance and cheer are always welcome in his eyes.
"I don't care if they don't smell too good, or they're dressed bad or dirty - they get a hug from me," he says, grinning. "Because that used to be me. That used to be me."
The day after Christmas falls on a Wednesday this year. Pastor Tony says he and Lucy will be back here at 7 o'clock, queuing up the next song for their Skid Row singers.