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Christmas came early on Albemarle Avenue

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From left, Jim Hooker, Pastor Bob Hudak, Pastor Rodney Coles and Pastor Lester Gay at the food distribution event.

Bob Hudak

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas came quite unexpectedly this year. It happened in an empty lot across from the JOY Soup Kitchen in Greenville. I joined Pastor Rodney Coles and Jim Hooker in an initiative called The Community Feeding Our Children program. Cars and vans belonging to Pitt County School social workers were lined-up to be filled with precious food for their students — children and families identified by our 37 public schools as needing food over the 2018 Christmas/New Year’s school break.

While it’s good to know that this initiative, made possible through the generosity of a Pitt County family, is providing the food to 500 hungry students and their families for the duration of this holiday season, these selected children have been previously approved for the Federal government’s community eligibility program (more commonly referred to as the ‘free lunch program’). They’re a fraction of a group of 14,000 students who ‘qualify.’

I witnessed an awesome ‘angelic choir’ of Social Workers, passionate about meeting the hunger of students they love and serve. Led by Cassandra Campbell, these social workers know how to multi-task. They’re both angels and shepherds at the same time! Some were headed directly from Albermarle to the homes of their students, eager to personally deliver all the provisions.

Something that morning unlocked a treasured memory in my heart from the early 1970s. I was a full-time graduate student of theology in Washington, D.C. — teaching part-time at a high school in Bethesda. Christmas break was coming and the school initiative to reach out to those in need had been so successful that the school had rented two very large vans, completely filled, ready to be transported to neighborhoods of Washington most people would go out of their way to avoid. Truth be told, there wasn’t anyone free or willing or perhaps even able to drive and deliver these gifts. Food, including turkeys and fresh vegetables, clothes, toys for children, even little artificial Christmas trees with lights and ornaments were among the many items stuffed into two extra large vans at the Country Day School of the Sacred Heart.

Call it youthful idealism or perhaps a grace-filled moment — when our mind, presenting all the arguments why we shouldn’t do something, loses out to the stirring of our hearts, I offered to do it. And I even persuaded a classmate to join me in this Christmas adventure! Trying to find the right streets and apartment numbers in the days before GPS (and cell phones) in some of the most impoverished and dangerous parts of D.C., turned out to be quite surprisingly, one of the most meaningful and memorable of Christmases, for my eyes were opened to see things my heart needed to experience.

Nervous and apprehensive, I knocked gently on the first door, not sure what to expect. It opened just a crack — and I could make out the eyes of a person in the darkness, eyeing me up and down. I stammered to introduce myself and the reason for my visit. “Come in,” said an elderly woman. I followed her into the apartment while Kevin kept watch over the vans — like the shepherds did over their sheep that first Christmas night! I was about 24 or 25 at the time and quickly realized I was in a setting I’d never before experienced.

There was no heat. No furniture. No refrigerator. No stove. The woman couldn’t accept the turkey I offered, just the canned goods. While it was as cold inside the apartment as it was outside, I felt the warmth of this woman’s gracious hospitality in my heart and even my soul. Several children came out of the shadows while I spoke with their grandmother, eager to see what was happening. I’ll always remember the joyful smiles on their faces when I brought a decorated tree with lights into the room, grateful that the electricity worked when I plugged it into the outlet.

I found in that gentle, elderly woman, a light and love which transcended our surroundings and even our many differences which otherwise would have kept us far apart from one another. Grateful for the food and gifts Kevin and I brought, it was hard to convince her that we were simply the delivery boys!

In spite of almost nothing material in that old and cold apartment, the faith of that woman was so real and vibrant, that when I looked into her eyes, I saw the love of God incarnate. The Word of God became flesh for me that December in the projects of Washington, in a humble, unassuming, out of the way place — just blocks from our U.S. Capitol Building. The lesson I learned was that the God we expect is not the God who often surprises us!

Many Christmases have come and gone through the years, but the unexpected joy and visible presence of God I experienced in that sharing of gifts so long ago, continue to speak with freshness and vitality of what it truly means to celebrate the deepest meaning of this holiday season — like the recent Community Feeding Children initiative on Albermarle Avenue!

The Rev. Bob Hudak is a member of the Interfaith Clergy Standing for the Community and serves on the governing board of the N.C. Council of Churches.