On Tuesday, December 23 we went to the downtown plaza for the Home Van's annual Christmas event, when we pass out holiday stockings made by folks from all over Gainesville and Alachua County - families, grade school classes, Girl Scout troops, Sunday Schools, parishioners from many different churches and synagogues, office staffs.... We had an abundance of food, and many wonderful Christmas treats like cookies and homemade fudge.
This year our Christmas party began in a way I would never have anticipated. Danny, one of our homeless volunteers, stood in the open door to the van and said, "I have something to say, and it's something special, so I want you to take off your hats."
The line of some 200-300 people fell silent and hats came off. Danny said, "I lost my daughter this year (Danny's daughter was a soldier in Iraq), so I'm not going to be seeing her this Christmas. I want us to start tonight with a prayer."
He then led the group in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Without discussion, this prayer was done in the ancient style of call and response.
Although the Lord's Prayer is part of a particular spiritual tradition, it is also the most universal of prayers: "Give us this day our daily bread." "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us..."
It is said that Christmas celebrates a day when God came down to earth to live amongst us. At this Christmas gathering, standing in the December darkness reciting this ancient prayer with several hundred homeless people and their friends from all over Gainesville, I once again felt God among us.
There could not be a better way to start out a New Year that is fraught with uncertainties.
The Home Van began in the fall of 2002, as an outreach to the unsheltered and chronically homeless folks who lived in and around downtown Gainesville. They were small in number, at least compared to now. Many of them were old Vietnam veterans still struggling with the wounds of war. For me, this is a special group because these were the boys I went to high school with. I remember them when they were mowing lawns to buy their first cars, getting up the courage to invite a girl to the high school dance, learning algebra....
In a way, I felt like I was going back to find them, after having deserted them for a very long time.
We saw ourselves as a small group of friends who would minister to this group.
We fell in love with them. Through their courage and patience, they changed who we are.
We had no idea that our little project would turn into major outreach to an ever-increasing number of people who are homeless and hungry. We didn't know that efforts to help the unsheltered homeless people would be stalemated for years on end in a quagmire of bureaucracy and fear. We didn't know that the economy was going to collapse.
Running this outreach out of a couple of livingrooms has become an effort for which the word
"lunatic" was invented. We are part of a tsunami of change.
In the coming year, we will be, as always, taking it one day at a time. In addition, we will be attempting to reinvent ourselves - to learn how to do what we can do, as well as we can, supported by God and our wonderful Home Van angels, among whom I count you, our extended family.
Thank you for everything, and blessings on you.