Dan Weber/Adventist Mission/ANN Staff
It didn’t matter that Joe was no longer in a gang and that he has no intention of ever going back to that way of life. When he went for job interviews, all prospective employers could see were his tattoos that betrayed his former membership in a gang.
“I just want to be clean,” Joe says. I want to “start a new life without gang activity or tattoos. I see [that] people see me a little differently. Before they use[d] to look at me and I used to see that funny look in their faces like “oh [he’s a] trouble-maker ... and now I don’t see it.”
Joe doesn’t see that look of suspicion now and neither does his wife Gracie, because they both got their tattoos removed. He and hundreds of others no longer have these long-lasting reminders of their past because of a program run by a Seventh-day Adventist doctor and his local church.
Over the past eight years Dr. Steven I. Popkow and the Agape Light Tattoo Removal program in Los Angeles have been helping people escape the stigmas that tattoos often represent. The program aims to remove the physical markings of tattoos and introduce people to Christ.
“It began with primarily gang-related tattoos to help alleviate those scars,” Pastor Katz says. Then “It opened up now to virtually anyone who has a tattoo on their hands, face, or neck can have tattoos removed for free.”
Every other month for two hours on a Friday afternoon Dr. Popkow’s waiting room is full. He often treats between 30 and 40 people. Before treatment, Pastor Katz meets with each patient and prays for God’s guidance in their lives. Then Dr. Papkow uses a green laser to remove tattoo color and a salve on the treated area. The entire procedure takes less than 10 minutes. Over eight years he has treated more than 1000 patients. Each of those patients often need five or six treatments.
“In the process of helping them out we have a chance to talk to them and bring them closer to Christ and introduce them to Christ and that is the greatest joy in my life,” says Pastor Katz.
This program provides a valuable service for those who otherwise could not afford to get their tattoos removed. Dr. Popkow says he has noticed a “difference in people’s lives when they don’t have the tattoos. They look different, they act different, they have jobs and they feel different. It’s just amazing.”
Although the program is free, it does require responsibility. Patients attend a Friday evening vespers to get their next treatment vouchers. Dr. Popkow and Pastor Katz say that at first patients are skeptical about attending the service. But they say many soon come to enjoy the program and some discover a desire to know more about Jesus.
Susan is a single mother who had her tattoos removed through the program and has found the accompanying meetings valuable. “I think [they’re] great because sometimes we get so busy we don’t go to church as often as we should or would like to,” she says. “Whenever I go down there I always cry because every time they talk it seems like they are talking about [my] life.”
Dr. Popkow says the church’s involvement is an integral part of the program.
“Without a pastor I don’t think we have a program,” says Dr. Popkow. “They do the service at night, they do the praying with the patients before [and] the counseling—finding out how they are doing.”
Susan wonders if Dr. Popkow would do the program free of cost if he was just a nice guy and not a Christian. She concludes that, “Our body is our temple. The doctor believes in the church and believes in God. I think he really wants to make a difference and the Lord is using him on this earth to do this, to help people better their lives.”
Joe is one more of those lives that the program has changed. Remember, because of the gang tattoos he had since age 8, Joe couldn’t land a job. But since getting them removed, he has gotten a stable job.
“It’s a great ministry,” says Dr. Popkow. It’s “very rewarding as far as seeing people change and improve and back into society with a positive outlook.”
This story can be seen on the next edition of the Adventist Mission DVD. For more information visit www.adventistmission.org.