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CHRISTMAS PARTY SPANS THE DIVIDE BETWEEN RICH, POOR, IF ONLY FOR AN EVENING

by Pam Marino
 

ORIGINAL FILE DATE: DEC. 17, 2010


SAN JOSE, CA. – On one recent evening in a downtown office, the great divide between Silicon Valley’s rich and poor melted away amidst some baked ham, gingerbread cookies and a few Christmas carols.

About 50 guests from a local homeless shelter and a low-income housing complex and their volunteer hosts enjoyed a little Christmas spirit around festive tables before shuttling back to a life of uncertainty.

There was no agenda that night, other than to give guests a chance to relax, enjoy a holiday meal, and share conversations away from the stress of a life on the streets.

The event was the third annual “Luke 14” Christmas Party at The River Church Community in downtown San Jose. Overseeing the festivities was Andy Singleterry and his wife Janet, church members who have both committed themselves to working with the poor. Volunteers from The River and at least two other local churches joined them.

As Singleterry explained to the hosts in a huddle before guests arrived, the title “Luke 14” comes from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 14, in which Jesus advises people to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” instead of their rich friends and neighbors.

Among the volunteers that night were high tech employees, leaders in business, educators, and in some cases their children, for whom homelessness is usually more of an abstract idea than a reality. For this one evening the volunteers and the homeless and low income men and women interacted as if there was no divide between them, sharing stories about families, lives, and memories of Christmas’ past.

“For me it’s a cultural exchange,” said volunteer Louie Lu, who works in high tech. He said that while he and his friends talk about things like buying homes, gadgets and new TVs, the needs of the people he interacts with at the Luke 14 parties are more real.

“There’s a lot of things I can learn from the low income and homeless community; their needs are down to Earth,” he said. “Sometimes they show a greater level of faith that encourages me in my walk with God.”

The guests at the Luke 14 parties come primarily from the Boccardo Regional Reception Center on Little Orchard Street in San Jose, managed by EHC Lifebuilders, one of the largest agencies in Santa Clara County that tackles the issue of homelessness. Some of the guests also come from Markham Plaza, an affordable housing complex managed by the organization.

Sitting at one table on this night was Ken and his wife, Sheba, who met in the homeless shelter a few years ago. They were back at the shelter this holiday season. They said they are waiting for a subsidized apartment to open up in Fremont.

Joining Ken and Sheba at the table was Leo, an older gentleman in a wheelchair, who said he is in constant pain. He originally came from San Diego, and is now homeless here in San Jose. Around the room were several more shelter residents using walkers and canes; many of the homeless there looked to be in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Also at the table with Ken, Sheba and Leo, was Rosie, wearing a festive red velvet top. She was once homeless, but is now living at Markham Plaza. Rosie said she started working in the fields at age 9, and later went to work as an electronics assembler, until she was laid off after 30 years. She even worked for a faith-based homeless organization, before becoming homeless herself for four years.

One reason The River Church is able to host the holiday parties, is that a team of members has spent the last seven years reaching out to the homeless at shelter and housing complex managed by EHC. Volunteers from The River lead weekly Bible studies at the shelter, as well as hosting game nights once a month, among other events.

Pastor Brad Wong said The River, which got its start in Sunnyvale with a lot of highly educated and skilled parishioners living comfortable lives in the suburbs, purposely moved to downtown San Jose 10 years ago. He said members wanted to “live out the kindness of Jesus by transplanting ourselves where there’s a greater diversity of needs.”

Singleterry started the Luke 14 parties three years ago, beginning with small monthly gatherings in homes, and then adding the parties at Christmas and Easter. Because of the relationship the church has with the shelter and Markham Plaza, there’s a level of trust with guests who are invited to the parties.

The parties, Singleterry found, are not only “dignifying” for the guests, but are gratifying for volunteers.

“That coming together across classes wound up being really exciting for people,” Singleterry said. “One of the special things is that it’s something families can do together.”

Monthly parties in the Singleterry’s home usually have 10 to 12 guests. Since the holiday parties are much larger – last year’s had 80 guests – they meet in the downtown offices of The River on First Street.

Two years ago about 70 guests showed up, when the group only expected about 50, he said.

“It felt like the ‘Feeding of the 5,000,’” Singleterry joked, referring to a Bible story in which Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of people with only a few fish and some bread. At this year’s party the ham and mac and cheese held out just long enough to feed everyone.

After singing a few carols like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, “The First Noel”, and finally “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, it was time for guests to pile into cars driven by volunteers to wind their way back to the shelter.

“I’m glad I came,” said Rosie before leaving. “It’s a nice break from the everyday.”


Singleterry his willing to teach others how to host Luke 14 parties. Contact him at singleterry@gmail.com.