Dozens of homeless men, women and children in Gainesville came to the manger that is The Way to eat on Christmas Day.
Though this manger is not the birthplace of Christ the Savior, of course, it is a place of everyday rebirth for those who squeezed into the mission’s mess hall, located in midtown.
Jerry Deyton, pastor of The Way, said he recognized faces of those who come for breakfast or lunch six days a week, and those who visit as a matter of last resort.
“At least every one of you has been here one time to eat,” he said before blessing the meal. “We’ve been here going on six years, and we haven’t missed a meal yet.”
For many of Gainesville’s homeless, local shelters were a source of hope and cheer on Christmas.
“It’s a special day,” said Kelly, who has been on and off the streets for several years as he works in poultry plants and other labor-intensive jobs. “We get to come in and sit down and enjoy Christmas, because we can’t be with our families.”
On the other side of the city, David Trent, pastor of Kingdom Harvest World Ministry, reflected on the family that his ministry had created for dozens of homeless women and children since opening in a mostly empty strip mall space this fall.
“Just to see what God is doing for the women is so refreshing to us,” Trent said. “And (the women) are giving each other hope. They kind of feed off each other.”
Nearby, several women sitting on sofas around a television nodded in agreement.
On Christmas Eve, they had all helped decorate the ministry’s sanctuary, singing carols and songs of praise, and ushering in the cold, but sunny, Christmas morning together.
“It’s gave me peace,” said Nicole. “I have a home. I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to eat, where I’m going to sleep.”
And it gives her a chance to begin working toward getting custody of her children, she added.
“It’s one big family,” Cristine, a young woman, chimed in.
The ministry has even reunited families.
Elizabeth said her son, who has been homeless for a number of years but recently taken in by Trent, found Kingdom Harvest and told her it was a good place for her, too.
“It gives you hope that one day …” Elizabeth said, trailing off.
But her meaning required no more words. Hope was a feeling strong enough to sustain her this day.
Back at The Way, Mark, a military veteran who has been homeless in Gainesville for several years, reflected on what the place meant to him.
“I pray for it every day when I wake up,” he added. “If nothing else, if I’ve got nothing to eat, I know I can come here.”
That sense of familiarity, companionship and having somewhere to go or somewhere to be, can be as elemental as a daily meal and a glass of water for those without a home.
Brittany said she’s been sleeping on the streets for too long.
She and her partner had fallen into some habits of theft to make ends meet, she said, and Christmas Day was both humbling and joyful.
“I’m hanging in there,” she said. “But it’s so hard right now. I used to be on that side – serving.”
Brittany, however, isn’t scared by hard times.
She was born with problems associated with her spinal fluid and cord, and doctors didn’t think she’d live to her first birthday, Brittany said.
“I was a miracle baby as it was,” she added.
And God keeps a smile on her face.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” she said. “God can easily put you in your place. I needed to come back down to scale.”
That’s not your everyday Christmas lesson, but it’s one that marks the lives of many who find themselves homeless in Gainesville.
“Heavenly father, we come and stand before you today … we are grateful for what you’ve done this year,” Deyton said in prayer. “Thank you today for bringing all these people together.”