The holidays have a way of bringing people together. In this series, The Times shares stories of what draws people together in community. If you know a close-knit group of people you'd like to see featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Lord, always dressed in his coat, beanie cap and two-toned glasses, can be found at the Good News at Noon shelter in Gainesville every day when lunch is served.
Lord, 86, takes his place at the head of the main table in a mess hall where each seat, from one wall to the next, is filled.
But it’s not just the beef, peas, potatoes and bread that draws the 86-year-old Navy veteran.
As much as anything, Lord said, it’s the camaraderie that keeps him coming back.
“It makes you feel welcome,” he added. “The friendships mean the most.”
Lord lives in a modest apartment, if you can call it that, walks with a cane and talks softly for a man with such a big heart.
He said he never takes for granted the opportunity to come to Good News to hear songs of praise and share a meal just as he has for most of the past 20 years.
Down at The Way, a day shelter and mission in the industrial area of the city founded by Jerry Deyton, there is a spirit alive in the communion held each weekday where the margins of society unite.
There are the literally homeless ripe off the streets, those living paycheck to paycheck, some who just got out of jail and are trying to restart their work life and even the few who live in cars, storage units or other modern mangers.
Deyton said he keeps a running inventory of the names and needs of everyone he serves. That list is 150 deep at this point. And those names form a family tree of sorts. This place is as much their home as anywhere else. They can stop in for a quick hello and pick up some basic hygienic supplies, or they can pitch in and help prepare and serve the meals.
Deyton said Christmas Day will be festive and celebratory, with dancing, gift exchanges, praise and raffle giveaways.
Back at Good News, Russell Clemmons scoops ice into paper styrofoam cups before they are filled with Kool-Aid and handed to the dozens passing through during a recent lunch service.
He said he, too, feels the pull of fellowship.
Clemmons has lived and worked here for the past several years, sober and grateful. He’s often at his most joyous at this time of day ... when serving others.
“This is my purpose,” he said.