Another year has passed us by and Christmas is just around the corner. It’s a special time, but this year I’m worried. While a lot has been achieved, there is still so much to do.
Like those fighting bushfires, the staff at my Exodus Foundation are at the front line – only our crisis is poverty and it never goes away. If anything, it seems worse than ever. Thanks to donors like you we are there every day, teaching the most vulnerable illiterate kids to read, handing out food parcels to needy families and giving hungry people a meal.
Sadly, the number of people coming to us in need continues to grow. In fact, we are preparing for unprecedented numbers as the poor get poorer and we see the impact of a new phenomenon in Australia: the rise of the working poor. That is, people with jobs that simply don’t pay enough.
We work hard at Exodus, all of us, to give hope to people who feel life has abandoned them. For instance, our chefs are always looking for new sources of donated food so we can provide not just comfort food but really nutritious meals. We do this because I believe people in this great, rich country shouldn’t suffer the way many do.
Sometimes miracles happen. Steve, our Head Chef, got a call from the cold storage section of a large supermarket chain. They had 14 pallets of meat they wanted to donate. That’s a lot of meat – enough for 187 days! Of course we gladly took it.
When it arrived Steve found the meat was in whole pieces – he’d have to cut, dice and mince it all by hand. “Of course I would have done it,” he told me, but then there was yet another miracle. In walked an old ex-butcher by the name of Jimmy. He wanted to know if I was interested in an industrial mincer, dicer and mixer machine that a local TAFE no longer needed.
This is what I call an Exodus moment, when absolute need is met by a random act of generosity.
A senior executive in a very large company put it to me this way recently: “You know, Bill, a thousand appeals for donations must come across my desk every week. But I can’t describe to you the feeling I get when I give out a meal to a homeless and needy person when I’m serving from your food van.”
That’s the front line for us and it happens every day!
Everything we do grows out of our respect for the people we help. And we get it back in spades. A few weeks ago, a guest approached me. “Bill”, he said, “I’m sick and need money for my medication”. I could see from his demeanour that he was in treatment for drug addiction and the medicine he needed was Methadone. He told me he was short $26 and he explained: “If you can spare it, I’ll give it back to you tomorrow”. I told him not to worry, but this guest insisted: “No, I’m an honest person. I’ll give it to you tomorrow”.
I quietly slipped him the money not expecting it would be returned and thinking I wasn’t being watched, but I was. A kindly gentleman who had been sitting nearby walked over to me and said: “I saw what you just did for that man and I want to make a donation. Give me your details”. His substantial cheque arrived a few days later.
The story would have ended there, but for the fact that the guest who borrowed my cash turned up the next day to give it back. I told him to keep it, but he answered: “You were good enough to loan it to me, so I can only give it back”. Living on the front line can be full of surprises!
I spend many nights down at our mobile food van behind the Domain in the city. In general the people we help there are struggling much more than our Loaves & Fishes Free Restaurant guests. Life doesn’t get much tougher than living rough on the city streets. Recently someone gave us a mobile phone as a gift for one of the homeless who eat at the van. We decided to give it to one man who seemed more vulnerable than most, so he could ring for help if he needed to. “Gee, thanks,” he said. Then he looked puzzled and added: “But I’ve got no friends to put into the phone. Can you give me a number to put in so it looks like I have a friend?”. That night I went home thinking how lucky I was to have friends who were there in times of need.
So many of those homeless will spend Christmas with us once more this year, as will the working poor and the poverty-stricken. Most of you would know that at our free, traditional Christmas Day lunch, we’ll serve over 2,000 guests – people who simply have nowhere else to go. So many of them really look forward to it. It’s a ray of light in what is otherwise a lonely and often desperate existence.
This Christmas Eve, we will also be celebrating at our mobile food van in the city so the people there don’t miss out. Santa will be on hand with good cheer and gifts for all, just as he is in Ashfield.
We’ll also prepare special Christmas hampers for families and the working poor who’ll need extra help this year. In them we’ll put the special Christmassy things we all enjoy, like chocolates and mince pies. You’d be amazed how far little things like that go towards rekindling the spirit of the festive season in those who feel forgotten.
As I finish this letter to you, my mind goes to a blind, lonely old man who turns up year after year at our Christmas lunch. He always tells us how much he misses his late wife. His face is etched with the lines of loneliness and struggle, but to see him smile at Christmas is a far better gift than any money could buy.
This year more people are relying on us than at any time in the last 24 years. So your support will be more important than ever. If you can find it in your heart to
support our work again I’d be really grateful and I know our guests will thank you on Christmas Day too.
God Bless and Merry Christmas,
Rev. Bill Crews