Every Sunday, sandwiched between a cluster of churches and office buildings in downtown Orlando – in the stillness of the predawn hours, a volunteer mecca is buzzing with activity.
Inside the kitchen of First Presbyterian of Orlando, the small army of bees are busy. Half a dozen cooks are flipping pancakes, slicing potatoes and mixing oatmeal. In the back, pots and pans are being scrubbed, while buckets of coffee are being brewed at breakneck speed. Just outside the kitchen, in the Gathering Hall, tables are rolling towards their spot. When they hit their mark, legs are popped into position and blue folded chairs are flipped open and shoved into place. In rapid fire succession, the process is repeated. “Pop! Pop! Pop!” The banging and clanging of the choreography fills the room. The clock is running.
Behind them, amidst a mountain of cables and audio boards, three people organize songs and videos, prepping a program for an audience about to arrive.
Time check: 5:43am.
Outside the building the audience is gathering. The crowd now forms a line, twisting its way underneath a wooden canopy and stretching over a hundred feet. In the darkness it could be a queue for any concert, sporting event, or night club. But this group isn’t here for a show. And there’s no admission price. Their tired eyes glance at me and I look at back at their weary faces. It’s my introduction to this group – nearly 300 of Central Florida’s homeless. They’re here for a meal served with hope.
Just behind the doors of the Gathering Hall, Michael Starnes, a long time volunteer organizes a prayer circle. “This is a ‘high dignity’ environment,” he says. It’s no accident the breakfast they’re preparing this morning isn’t being distributed at them. Instead, it’s being served to them. Served at tables intentionally set for eight, with styrofoam cups and utensils carefully wrapped in paper napkins. Dignity, indeed!
“Last night we all slept in a bed,” Michael continued. “And today, we’ll go back to a home with a roof over our heads. But those we serve today have none of that.” It is a stark reminder of what I take for granted each day. And a ‘call to notice’ what I’d be witnessing when the doors open.
“Ok. Everyone ready?” Michael asks those behind him. “Yes!”, they reply in unison. “Let’s go!”
It’s now 6:30am.
As the doors swing open, people ranging from two to eighty-two are quickly seated. But the rush and energy is focused. Those who’ve been here before know the routine: some empty cups are already raised in the air, signaling the desire for hot coffee. Volunteers enter the room with full pitchers, while a Chris Tomlin music video blasts, How Great is Our God on the big screen. Everything is orderly and respectful.
Behind me is a growing sea of backpacks, bags, and personal belongings all neatly stacked in a straight line against the back wall. I watch each homeless person come in, drop off their bundle, and find a place to sit. Everything they own in life is in those bags. And I find it surprising they’re willing to leave it unattended. But that’s the kind of place this seems to be.
The people I’m looking at are tired. Not just tired of being homeless, but tired of being treated as if they’re invisible and don’t matter. But here they’re valued. They’re recognized for their worth. They’re treated as guests.
But it’s not just those who live on the streets who have stories to tell. All the volunteers I’ve met have stories of their own. There’s Ernie, a tall, slim man who once played football for the Philadelphia Eagles, now volunteering his time as a driver. He helped dozens of people get here this morning. And Allen from Kenya, who once was homeless himself, is also here to work. His neatly pressed blue buttoned-down shirt, black slacks and polished shoes with tassels, are symbolic of how far he’s come since he was on the other side of the receiving line. And a youth group from Johnson City, Tennessee, decided to spend the week in Orlando to help out wherever they saw a need. This morning they were needed here to help with the capacity crowd.
Despite the number of volunteers, the homeless still outnumber them almost 10 to 1.
Joe Mills, this morning’s keynote speaker, takes the stage with a message. “Trust…step forward,” he says. “Step forward and just DO something! Every little bit counts…” While the room may have been listening, I heard his message directly. Use what I have for the benefit of others, whether big or small. Instead of talking about doing things – go do it! We’re all called to serve no matter where we find ourselves in life. Each of us has the ability to respond. “Just DO Something,” he kept saying. The irony not lost on me.
Breakfast is over and the homeless are heading back onto the streets. Inside, the volunteers are clearing tables, realigning chairs, and setting the room up for the Sunday services to come.
For those homeless I met, this breakfast may be the only meal they’ll have today. This is especially heartbreaking for those too young to understand why.
Driving away I saw a man with a rolled up mat. Finding a patch of tall grass beneath the shade of an adjacent building, he unfurled his mat and stretched out. Using his backpack for a pillow, he was in a spot he’d, most likely, been in before. While this group of volunteers couldn’t solve all their problems or alleviate all their suffering, they chose to step forward. They chose to DO something…anything! And that was surely something!