It’s a December afternoon on Skid Row. Rows of sagging tents line San Pedro Street and the blocks beyond, as the thousands of people who call this neighborhood home stake their territories. Many sleep right on the sidewalk. Men and women push shopping carts filled with empty plastic bottles. The air is rich with the smell of urine. The holiday spirit so abundant in other parts of the city is negated here by the brutal realities of daily life.
In a building at the corner of San Pedro and Sixth, however, a choir raises its collective voice in a chorus of “hallelujahs,” filling the gym of the Midnight Mission with a blast of sublime sound.
This performance is part of the Messiah Project, Skid Row’s most glorious holiday pageant. Now in its second year, the Project brings together professional musicians and singers from groups including the L.A. Philharmonic and the Colburn School to perform in collaboration with Skid Row organizations and community members.
Today’s roughly 200-person audience is composed of both well-heeled Palisades types and locals who came in off the street to catch the show. Regardless of everyone’s origin, it’s clear the event is bringing joy to an often heartbreaking neighborhood and illuminating the beauty that already exists here.
The audience hushes as the musicians tune their instruments with that signature orchestral buzz. Incorporating a variety of musical selections, the heart of today’s performance is selections from Messiah. Written in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, the first performance of the piece took place in Dublin and benefited a prison, hospital and infirmary, ultimately allowing 142 men to be released from debtor’s prison. (Handel himself was facing prison time due to his massive debts.) Subsequent performances happened at orphanages and were attended by the likes of King George II; legend has it the king was so moved by the iconic “Hallelujah” chorus that he rose to his feet in awe, beginning a tradition of standing up during the piece that endures today in Skid Row.
“These early performances were social fundraising events,” Messiah Project co-creator Vijay Gupta says. “There’s this long history of not just philanthropy but, in my mind, social justice.”
The Messiah Project got its start in 2015 through the efforts of a local nonprofit called Street Symphony. Founded by Gupta, a violinist in the L.A. Phil, Street Symphony brings professional musicians to Skid Row to give free lessons and music-related workshops. (Gupta connected with Midnight Mission after hearing an NPR segment about the center’s Music at the Mission project.) During the past five years Street Symphony players, who regularly play at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the L.A. Music Center, have performed more than 200 shows in Skid Row and at L.A. County jails.
Gupta, who joined the L.A. Phil in 2007 at age 19, conceived of the Messiah Project in conjunction with several Skid Row residents, including Don Garza. A Desert Storm veteran and former Marine, Garza was homeless in Skid Row for more than 10 years. A lifelong singer, he used his rich voice to help soothe his PTSD.
Garza told Gupta that a Messiah sing-along in Skid Row would be a dream come true. Singers from the L.A. Master Chorale had recently joined Street Symphony with the intention of doing a large project such as this. The Messiah Project was thus born in time for the 2015 holidays season, with Garza as a featured vocalist.
“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,” Garza sings again today, “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Members of the orchestra and audience wipe away tears as his booming tenor fills the sunlit room.
Garza’s solos elicit a standing ovation.
Following that is a performance by Urban Voices Project, a 17-person choir composed of homeless and formerly homeless Skid Row residents. They perform a song called “Take What You Need,” written for today’s performance by composer Reena Esmail. Choir members take turns telling their stories on the mic. A woman named Pamela Walls shares that she slept in more than 35 places during her five years of homelessness, often sleeping behind the school where she was taking computer classes and once stumbling into an emergency room with a 108-degree fever due to pneumonia. She wanted to give back to the community after finding permanent housing, so she joined the choir.
“It’s such a family,” Walls says after the performance. “The choir is about music as healing.”
Urban Voices Project co-founder Christopher Mack echoes the sentiment. “Music tears down unseen walls,” he says. “You’re creating a space for something beautiful. Beauty in this community is always necessary and needed. Beauty raises a man out of the muck and the mire.”
The ensemble performs another “Hallelujah,” this one written by Leonard Cohen. The lyrics of holy and broken hallelujahs today feel especially poignant given the stories of addiction, disease and eventual triumph that were just shared. These broken hallelujahs are also a reminder of the human suffering happening just outside the Mission’s doors, and the incredible resilience humans are capable of.
“People ask how an hour-and-a-half-long music program is going to help homeless people,” says Georgia Berkovich, the Mission’s director of public affairs. “They don’t get that it’s these moments of sweetness in an otherwise horrendous existence on the street that can start to build hope. Once people start to feel hope, they’re more apt to ask for help, and if they ask for help, we’re here.”
The show ends with “Silent Night,” with everyone in the room singing sentiments of sleeping in heavenly peace. After the show, volunteers hand out hygiene kits to locals who need them. Outside, dozens of people are waiting to get inside for the night. The sun is setting. It’s getting cold.
“Often in our homeless community people feel lost and forgotten,” Berkovich says. “They feel like people don’t want to look at them, so of all the services we provide here, one of the most important is that sense of family and community. Today was the epitome of community.”