Los Angeles, California. Its sunny streets and sprawling population are a far cry from International Falls, Minnesota, where Carita Witmer grew up. International Falls, nicknamed “Icebox of the Nation” has a population numbering a little over six thousand. Los Angeles? Almost four million.
Carita lives with her family in a quiet neighborhood built on a hillside, about fifteen or twenty miles from Hollywood. She calls her neighborhood “city with a small town feel,” but she doesn’t have to go far to reach the crowded housing and hum of inner city life.
Los Angeles is unique as a city in that its population is widespread, with many people living in single family homes as well as apartment complexes. Carita says that to her the most intriguing aspect of city life are the many different cultures represented. “One grocery store in particular almost feels like you’re in a different country. It’s set up market style, and there’s a lot of hustle and bustle and you hear lots of other languages: Spanish, Armenian, and Chinese. You can buy cheap produce there, and many varieties of rice and meats and spices.”
Carita’s neighbors are American, Asian, Philippine, Indian, Iranian, and English.
Carita and her family moved to Los Angeles in 2008 to work for Choice Books, a Christian book seller whose mission is to make quality Christian books available in the marketplace to people who might not otherwise have opportunity to buy them. Choice Books’ racks can be found in drug stores, grocery stores, and hospital gift shops across the U.S.
While the means of the Witmers’ living in Los Angeles is Choice Books, the heart of their mission is church planting. Under a mission called DestiNations International, three other families have moved to Los Angeles in the years since the Witmers, to assist in the seeding and watering of a church. Today, the church has grown to include eight families and several singles. They meet on the back patio of a local Los Angeles family.
Two years ago, in November 2012, Carita’s family gathered in Colorado for her brother’s wedding. Carita was teaching school in Pennsylvania at that time, but flew in to Colorado the week before the wedding to be with her family. Four days before the wedding, Carita’s mom and two of her siblings were driving on the highway when their car was broadsided by a large pick-up. Carita’s mom was killed.
When she heard the news, Carita knew she couldn’t go back to Pennsylvania. She had had a difficult couple of months adjusting to life apart from her close-knit family, and now she felt as though God had been using her rocky start at school teaching to prepare her for this life-changing event.
The school found a replacement, and Carita went with her family back to Los Angeles. She was there to watch her youngest brother finish his last year and a half of high school and to see her younger sister start college a year after her mom’s death.
“It really changed our lives,” Carita says. “Mom was definitely my best friend, the one I talked to. I really miss her–her mothering, her mentoring, just her presence. Mothers have a way of pulling a family together and making a place a home. She was a good mom–not only to her children, but even to her children’s friends and other people around her.”
Carita’s current household includes her father and youngest brother and sister and three Choice Books VS workers. Carita does the laundry, housecleaning, and organizing; keeps track of everyone’s schedules; and helps her younger sister with the cooking. “Sometimes I feel like a Choice Books domestics worker,” she says. She is glad for that role, as it gives her a feeling of definition and purpose.
Besides the work at home, she has done some tutoring and nanny work and would like to do more tutoring. This past year she took the final week of training to make her involvement with the DestiNations International mission official.
“Among other reasons, since this is where God has me at this point in time, I thought I might as well plug in,” she says. Joining the mission is more a formality than anything else, since Carita has been helping with the Los Angeles work ever since her family moved there. “But now that I made it official, I feel more of a big picture purpose. I enjoy the inner city aspect. There’s lots of opportunities, and it’s easy to really dream.”
Carita’s dreams? “When I really start to dream, I dream of a Christian school or maybe a tutoring center or a youth center. A place where you could help kids with their homework, where they would have a Christian influence and a good safe place to hang out. ”
Kids are a big part of the mission in Los Angeles. The church hosts a Summer Bible Camp, Girls’ Club, and Kids’ Club. Girls’ Club takes place once a month and includes girls ages 11-15. Kids’ Club, held once a week in a local park, is probably their biggest ministry.
“We get kids from the neighborhood,” Carita says, “and kids that come to the park to play. We range from seven to twenty kids a week. This year, for the first time, we have a consistent core group of un-churched kids, and they love coming to Kids’ Club so much that we are carrying it on through the school year, rather than just during the summer. It’s very exciting. It’s fun to watch how God worked that one out.
“We’re very flexible with what we do. We have game time and song time and snack time, and often we’ll have a Bible story between the games and the songs. While we feel it’s very important to give kids spiritual input, we think it’s also important, and we’re not wasting our time if all we do is hang out with them.
“I enjoy interacting with the kids, and I also enjoy just watching,” she says. “We have a lot of boys at Kids’ Club right now, and it’s great to watch the guys relate to them and hear how they speak into their lives. Some of the kids have been coming to church, and the discussion this week was how to sit still and not be a distraction to other children. Very simple truths but important in their lives.
“One thing we’re praying about now is that if it would be God’s will, he would provide a building for us.”
The core group of un-churched kids at Kids’ Club come from an apartment building where Carita’s brother and sister-in-law lived for a year and a half. The couple are now living in Thailand, but while in Los Angeles, they made friends with quite a few kids from their apartment building, particularly one boy who was twelve or thirteen years old at the time.
“Several weeks ago, that boy prayed to receive Jesus into his heart,” Carita says. “It’s fun to hear my brother Christopher tell stories of conversations he’s had with him. He’s a young man, but growing. He’s only fourteen years old, but he has the respect and admiration of all the little kids and has a lot of potential to point kids to God.
“I feel like we are reaping the benefits of when my brother and sister-in-law lived in that apartment building. It just goes to show that even a quiet presence and little prayers for a community can go a long way.”
What has God been doing in her own life? “I feel like the past several months, God has been talking to me about not striving,” she says. “It’s easy for me to turn things over in my mind, to focus on what I should be fixing.
“In the middle of June my brother referred to a verse in his sermon that really stood out to me. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ In the New American Standard version it says, ‘Cease striving.’ It was what I needed to hear from God at that point in time.
“I felt like God told me several times in the past months, ‘Cease striving.’
“Another thing that God has been showing me is sinful agreements that I have made with the enemy that cause me to need to control my environment. God is calling me to renounce those and choose to trust Him with situations where I can’t see the outcome.
“My mom’s death certainly impacted this whole journey. Her death revealed some of the struggles in my heart that were there before, but that I hadn’t put a name to. Her death was a huge loss that brought those things to the forefront.
“It’s been a complicated journey that’s hard to talk about, but I guess what it comes down to is this: Can I trust God in a situation even if it looks out of control? If I can’t trust God, I have to try to control things. I am learning what it means to let go of that control.”
This article was written for Daughters of Promise magazine, the January/February issue.