It's become a kind of Thanksgiving tradition for me the last few years to get up early Thursday morning and drive downtown to the Union Gospel Mission to help set up these large event tents that serve as a makeshift cafeteria in the middle of Third Avenue between Burnside and Couch (pronounced "cooch") Street. For one day of the year, this street belongs to the least of our brothers. They are the homeless; the mentally ill; the addicts; and those whose hearts were broken so severely by life that they simply gave up and lost hope. Each year, several hundred venture to Third Street for a good hot meal, and a respite from their lives of living on the margins.
It was very cold this Thanksgiving morning, and as typical for Portland Oregon in the fall, very wet. I parked my car a few blocks down from the event site. It started to sprinkle rain as I arrived and as I was shaking hands with my fellow workers and exchanging "Happy Thanksgiving" the heavens opened up and pea-sized hail began to pelt us. There was no dampening of spirits. We laughed, shook our heads, and someone yelled out "Let's get 'er done."
Typically it takes about two hours with about 25 guys working to set up the series of 20x40 tents. It is a marvelous exhibition of team work. While we do have a project leader, pretty much everyone just gets to work like a colony of ants. If you see a task that needs to be done, you don't ask "who's doing it?" The job belongs to you. With the motivation of the hail, which turned to a sheet of rain, we had the tents up within an hour and a half.
The project leader handed out $5 Starbucks gift cards to all the volunteers as a token of his appreciation, but the real reward for all of us was the event itself. When we were done and heading back to our cars to drive home to our families, we saw the line of people who would be dining in our temporary restaurant already starting to form. Dinner is served between 10am and 7pm. By 7:00am the line was a half a block long.
The news didn't cover this event. Some years they do, but it wasn't interesting enough for them this year. I did see this morning coverage of another line. This one in front of a Best Buy electronics store. A line, about a half a block long, had formed there the night before. People in this line weren't hoping for a good meal. They had camped out all night so they could be the first to storm the store when it opened at 7:00am. How apropos that today is called "Black Friday." There is indeed somewhat of a dark element in the juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and gluttonous combat consumerism that follows the very next day.
As to the diners of the Union Gospel Mission tents, yesterday, today the struggle resumes. It's cold, it's raining, and the next meal is still uncertain. They will watch the shoppers from the alleys as they try to figure out where they will spend another night without a home. Soon they will decide if getting in line in the rain in front of the homeless shelter which poses its own dangers is worth it, or if they will find a doorway where the police won't bother them as long as they leave before it gets light.
Christ wonders the streets still looking for a room in the inn.