The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes a myriad of memories, traditions, and emotions. If you are anything like me, traditions are a significant component of this time of year. The repeated sounds, tastes, smells, and activities from year to year trigger my brain to reminisce on the past, on the sweet innocence of childhood, on the deep impact of certain family members, on the fundamental importance of gratitude and joy. All it takes is one bite of my grandmother’s stuffing or one dance number from the Macy’s Day parade to transport me back in time to any given year. You probably have had similar experiences to what I just described. There is something about this time of year that prompts reflection and ritual.
While there are often sweet and joyful memories associated with the holidays, for those who have experienced any form of loss, this season can also be a painful reminder of what is passed or what is missing. I am sure that you have felt this sense of loss before. You may even be feeling it now. This dichotomy between nostalgia and pain that comprises the holiday season can be difficult to reconcile; it can be so bittersweet. For those in poverty, loss is a daily reality—loss of jobs, housing, family members, education, and dreams. As the holidays prompt us to reflect on our lives and perhaps some painful memories, those in poverty are bombarded with the reality of the losses they’ve experienced.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Mindy, our Director of Transformation here at Oliver Gospel, to talk about what the holiday season looks like for those experiencing poverty or homelessness. In some ways, Thanksgiving and Christmas are just days to survive, like any other day of the year, Mindy explained. When your basic needs aren’t being met, it is nearly impossible to prioritize things like holiday gifts, traditions, or meals. Through ministries like Oliver Gospel, our neighbors move beyond survival and learn how to thrive, whether that is as small as having turkey on Thanksgiving or as big as gaining the skills necessary to gain employment.
Mindy also clarified that while there are differences, people experiencing homelessness are humans too! They usually want the same things out of the holidays as you and I do – community, food, warmth. But, due to their circumstances, they have limited to no access to those things. They would love to cook a full Thanksgiving meal and share it with their friends and family, but if they don’t have a place to call home, they wouldn't have a kitchen to cook in, much less money to buy all the food. Sadly, they may not even have family or friends to spend the holidays with.
One of the biggest needs that our neighbors need during the holidays, and year-round, is community. “When people are not in community, they are marginalized, and they are left out.” Mindy said. Thanksgiving and Christmas are celebrations. Celebration happens in community, so building relationships is the first step. Receiving a fancy meal or a Christmas gift are important and certainly add to the holiday experience, but the gift of relationship persists far beyond this season. Community is the building block for success as a person moves out of poverty. With a support system to love and encourage them, their chances for success and stability are so much higher. A critical step in creating community for those experiencing homelessness is through volunteering on a regular basis. Mindy encourages volunteers to consider volunteering on a monthly basis because that consistency is what opens doors for deep relationships. “The really fun, good stuff—where you're getting to hang out with the men, or you get to hang out with the women at Toby's and you know their kids’ names and they know your kids’ names—that's where we build community.”
Another way to partner with us in transforming lives is through prayer. As Thanksgiving and Christmas are approaching, please pray for our neighbors experiencing homelessness in our city. Pray that through community and shelter, that they would feel the love of Christ, and this season would be marked with joy rather than sorrow. Pray also for our staff as they work long hours over the holidays to make this season the best possible for our guests. Pray that the Lord would energize and sustain them.
Today, as I admire the trees changing colors and relish the crisp air, I am reminded of how bittersweet this season can be. If you have ever experienced the pain or loss over the holidays, our prayer is that you find comfort and peace in Christ and in community. We are praying that during this Thanksgiving and Christmas season, you will feel loved and cared for, that you will be surrounded by a community who supports you and know that we love and care about you here at Oliver Gospel!