October 11, 2006

Leaving the Past Behind

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt. 4:23).
2006 1528 page272006 1528 page27 capOU MAY NOTICE A LITTLE MORE PAIN with this. You ready?” Dr. Steven Popkow wears a white lab coat and goggles dark enough to belong to a welder. Sitting in front of Popkow in his medical office treatment room is a middle-aged Hispanic, with an elaborate and colorful tattoo that stretches up the right side of the man’s neck, from his shoulder to just under his ear.
The green laser Popkow points at the tattoo makes the clicking sound of playing cards rubbing against the spokes of a bicycle wheel and raises blisters on the man’s skin. The patient grimaces and curses as he tries to manage the pain of the treatment. “Hang in there,” the doctor offers sympathetically.

Undoing the Past

We all make mistakes in life. Often these mistakes can be overlooked or forgotten. But getting tattooed is a onetime decision that will end up staying with you for the rest of your life, a decision that leaves a visible mark for everyone to see. What would you be willing to do to get rid of that scar and start your life anew?

We Christians know that Jesus can take away our sins and cleanse our lives. In southern California, a Seventh-day Adventist doctor is helping to heal the physical scars of those who want to take a new path.
“It began with primarily gang-related tattoos to help alleviate those scars,” says Jan Kaatz, pastor of the Culver City Seventh-day Adventist Church. “It’s opened up to now virtually anyone who has a tattoo on their hands, their arms, their face, and their neck. They can have the tattoos removed for free.”*
Dr. Steven Popkow started the Agape Light tattoo removal program so that people could start their new lives free from the marks of their past. But why provide a free service for which he could easily charge a lot of money?
“Just the difference [it makes] in peoples’ lives,” he says. “When they don’t have the tattoos they look different, they act different, they have jobs, they feel different; it’s just amazing.”
2006 1528 page27Tattoos are widely accepted in popular culture. Yet for some people they’re a constant reminder of a troubled past. Tattoos are a common way for street gangs to identify members. Unfortunately, these outward marks remain, even if a person’s heart is changed.

A Case Study

Joe is a former gang member who got his first tattoo at the age of 8. Now he and his wife, Gracie, are patients at Agape Light.

“I just want to be clean, you know?” Joe says. “It’s like starting a new life without any gang tattoos. I see people see me a little different. They used to look at me and I could see that funny look in their face, like, Oh, he’s a troublemaker or something. Now I don’t see it.”
Joe now has a stable job, and he enjoys the freedom of his new life.
Every other month, for two hours on a Friday afternoon, the Agape Light program treats 30 to 40 people. The waiting room is full. Some are a little nervous, even those who have been there before. Before treatment, Pastor Kaatz meets with each patient and prays with them for God’s guidance in their lives. Then Dr. Popkow uses a green laser to remove the tattoo’s coloring. Salve is then applied to the treated area. The entire procedure takes less than 10 minutes. Over the past eight years Dr. Popkow has treated more than 1,000 patients, with each one receiving an average of five or six treatments.

New Lives for Old

2006 1528 page27Although the tattoo removal program is free, it does come with a price. Each patient is required to attend a Friday night vespers program to receive their next treatment voucher. Patients are often skeptical, but soon they come to enjoy the program. Some reveal a desire to know more about Jesus.

“I think it’s great because sometimes we get so busy in life we don’t go to church as often as we should or would like to,” says Susan Alvarez. “Whenever I go there I always cry, because every time they talk it seems like they’re talking about your life. I think it’s great.”
Susan is a single mom who decided to have her tattoos removed when her husband left and she had to find a job. She understands the importance of what Dr. Popkow provides to his patients.
“Our body is our temple and the doctor believes in the church and he believes in God. That’s why he takes his time to do this because maybe if he didn’t have religion to fall back on, would he really just be doing this because he’s a nice guy? I think he really wants to make a difference, and the Lord is using him to help people better their lives.”
The Agape Light program would not succeed without the help of the local Adventist church and its members. From calling prospective patients and organizing the treatment schedules, to providing a hot meal before the Friday vespers program, the Agape Light program is a true partnership between Dr. Popkow and his local church.

Questions for Reflection

1. Tell about a time when your congregation’s community service projects raised your church’s profile in the community. What were the lasting results?

2. Describe the “ripple effect” that often accompanies an emphasis on community service. Who else benefits besides those directly affected?

3. What are some community needs that you and your congregation are equipped to meet? List at least five. 

Are the by-products of serving the community valuable even if no one is baptized as a result?

Jan Kaatz, pastor of the Adventist church where the evening program is based, observes, “In the process of helping them out we have a chance to talk and to bring them closer to Christ, to introduce them to Christ. That’s the greatest joy I have.”

Dr. Popkow is thankful for the support of Pastor Kaatz and his church members. “Without a pastor I don’t think we have a program. The pastors do the service at night, they do the praying with the patients before. I think it’s helpful counseling, finding out how they’re doing.”
By using their gifts to treat others in need, Dr. Popkow and the volunteers of the Agape Light program have become living examples of Jesus and His life of service. By helping people start a new life physically, Dr. Popkow is also helping them spiritually and is helping tell the world about Jesus.
Popkow receives a blessing from working with Agape Light. “It’s a great ministry; very rewarding as far as seeing people changed, improved, and back into society with a positive outlook.”
Touching the lives of our local communities is just one part of the Tell the World plan. To learn more about Tell the World, visit www.adventistmission.org . This, and many other outreach programs, benefit from your systematic support of the mission offering at your local church.
*Since this interview the church has begun charging a modest fee for this service, to help defray the costs of providing this ministry.
Daniel Weber is production manager for the Office of Adventist Mission.