An Outdoor Church in Skid Row Was Already Close to Broke—Then Someone Stole All of Its Equipment

A devastating theft wound up being a blessing in disguise for the Row Church Without Walls

Quadryya King, 38, came to Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles for the drugs. On a recent chilly Friday evening, she stumbled upon several rows of white folding chairs set in a semicircle on the corner of Winston and Fifth streets.

The Row Church Without Walls, or the Street Church as some parishioners call it, pops up here every Friday evening. For the past 13 years, founding Pastor Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie has held services at 7:30 at the epicenter of L.A.’s homelessness crisis.

“When we say we are the ‘church without walls,’ we mean it in every aspect,” says Jn-Marie.

In mid-October tragedy struck the outdoor congregation when someone stole the trailer that housed the church’s sound equipment, folding chairs, and other essentials, including a generator. All in all, the paraphernalia was worth around $13,000, a massive sum for an organization that runs on donations.

Like many individuals living on Skid Row, the Row Church isn’t necessarily outdoors by choice. According to Jn-Marie, the church initially tried to find a brick-and-mortar location downtown, but gentrification and the high cost of rental properties made that impossible. “We as a church are dealing with exactly what the community’s dealing with,” says Jn-Marie. About five years ago, Jn-Marie found that he could no longer afford rent for an apartment and spent a few months sleeping in his car.

A former member of College Boyz, a hip-hop group that was on Virgin Records in the ’90s, Jn-Marie (who still goes by Cue, the nickname his former bandmates gave him) was licensed to preach by Holy Faithful Bible Church in Inglewood, and first honed his style at Pastor Dave Gibbons’s Newsong Church, which has locations in Orange County and L.A. After several years with Newsong, he felt a calling to move his efforts closer to the people. By day Jn-Marie is an organizer with the organization Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

The Row is rooted in the tradition of black churches spreading liberation theology during the time of slavery and the early Civil Rights movement. “When black people went to church, it was an event because of what they went through in their lives,” says the St. Lucia-born pastor. “They stayed in church a long time because nobody wants to leave church and go pick cotton.”

Since its inception, the Row has relied on donations. In 2012 members of a church in Singapore saw a short documentary about the Row and raised $27,000 for their brothers and sisters in L.A. “We were able to function on that until this year,” said Pastor Cue.

By October the church only had about a month’s worth of funds in its coffers. The trailer’s theft seemed it would only make matters worse.

“I was devastated and prayed a lot,” Jn-Marie recalls. “Then I thought, ‘Lord, it’s in your hands. If you don’t want me to do this anymore, then I’m done.’”

Jn-Marie wasn’t going to make a big deal of it, but one of the friends he did share the bad news with was Pastor Gibbons of Newsong. Gibbons informed Jean Lee, the church’s marketing and communications manager, who set up a Gofundme campaign to raise money for a new trailer and to replace the stolen items.

That campaign raised roughly $5,000 over eight weeks—not enough. Then a couple of donors came forward and covered the whole amount. All in all, the Row raised nearly $20,000, enough to keep its proverbial doors open.

“We know that God is in the mix,” Jn-Marie says. “We [weren’t going to] have a fundraiser, but God said, ‘No, that’s what we’re doing!’”

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