María Guadalupe Martínez Estrada stared up at the painting of Christ with children climbing up his knees and playing with the ends of his robes. She glanced at the sputtering flames of the prayer candles beneath the painting and wondered what each candle represented.
A sick child? An unexpected pregnancy? An angry parent?
It was Lupe’s favorite place to wait in Saint Peter’s church when she was killing time before youth-group duties. Most of the time, this chapel was empty and she could check her phone or read a book in peace.
Tonight her phone battery was dangerously low, so she stared at the painting. There were children of every color and various ages. Some had fine clothes, but most had shirts that were worn or scuffed on the edges.
A plaque at the bottom of the painting bore the words “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them. For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
It was a nice idea. A good goal, Lupe thought. It wasn’t reality. In the middle of Los Angeles—the “city of angels”—it was more an ironic joke than anything else.
She was waiting by the painting while Father Anthony told the new kids what they’d be doing that night and what they might expect at the rescue mission. Saint Peter’s youth group helped out serving meals and cleaning rooms one night a week for the family quarters at the mission while some of the older kids like Lupe set up the warming center when temperatures dropped and then went out in “street teams” to talk to families that might need help.
Focus on the kids, Father Anthony always said. We can’t help everyone every night, so we focus on the most vulnerable. Get those kids indoors.
People thought it didn’t get cold in LA. That was bullshit. It was January, and they’d had nearly a week of almost freezing temperatures. That might not seem like much for someone from a place that snowed, but when you lived on the street, the cold was enough to keep you miserable at night, especially if you were a little kid.
She turned to see Joshua Gomez enter the chapel.
“Hey.” She looked back to the painting, her eyes fixed on the lit candles. Josh would want to talk. He always wanted to talk. Mostly about himself. Maybe she could convince him she was praying.
“Did you see how many freshmen came tonight?” He sat next to her. “I guess my talk last Sunday must have motivated them, huh?”
So no luck on the praying thing. “Yeah, probably.” More likely it had to do with report cards coming out and college-bound kids realizing they needed volunteer hours if they wanted to be eligible for the good scholarships, but she didn’t mention that. She glanced back and saw a middle-aged priest leading a group of younger teens from the youth-group meeting room. “Looks like we’re ready to go.”
“Good.” Josh stood when Lupe did. “So… you want to be on the street team with me tonight?”
Lupe glanced toward the meeting room. Teaming up with Josh wasn’t exactly in her plan, but she didn’t know how to turn him down without him getting suspicious. “Um… Yeah, I guess. I might have to stick close to the mission though. I kinda had that thing last week with the guy from Streets Alive, remember?”
Josh shrugged. “That dude? He won’t bother you if you’re with me.”
“Uh-huh.” Lupe hooked her backpack over her shoulder and headed toward the foyer of the church.
That’s what I’m afraid of.
Lupe stuffed her hands in the pockets of her thickest jacket, keeping her bright blue rescue-mission shirt visible as she walked through the park with Josh and Mika Walker, one of the other senior girls. Mika and Josh were debating the merits of dorm life at UCLA and USC, which was where Mika wanted to attend.
And Lupe? Well, college was a little more complicated for her.
She kept her eyes out for any small faces peeking from tents or the backs of cars parked in the scattered parking spaces. The mission had beds open tonight in the family wing.
“…don’t you think, Lupe?”
She snapped to attention at the sound of her name, turning to Mika and Josh. “Huh?”
“I was saying that talking about which college dorms are nicer seems a little tone-deaf when we’re trying to help homeless families.” Mika kept her voice low and glanced at Josh. “Don’t you think?”
“Yeah. I mean…” Lupe kept hearing Daniel’s snide remarks in the back of her head.
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