ABOUT CHRISTMAS IN THE PARK
Over 600 volunteers spent part of their Christmas Day in Denver’s Civic Center Park, handing out food, supplies, and gifts to over 600 of Denver’s homeless individuals and families.
Christmas in the Park is organized by After Hours, an alternative church group that began making and distributing sandwiches to the homeless in 2011. Their first Christmas Day event was a small group of volunteers handing out coats, socks, sandwiches and more. This year, over 700 sleeping bags were collected, in addition to winter coats, blankets, socks, underwear, toys, diapers, hygiene products, scarves, gloves, a hot meal, and more.
Part of what makes this experience so poignant is the coming together of so many volunteers on Christmas Day, including church groups, members of local businesses, a large Jewish group, and unaffiliated community members.
Among the homeless were veterans, families, elderly, young people, and others. Some were recently homeless. Others have been present for previous years’ Christmas in the Park.
Many volunteers were there for the very first time. Others were annual Christmas Day volunteers. But for After Hours regulars, offering food and connection with Denver’s homeless is a regular experience. And that lasting commitment makes Christmas in the Park all the more powerful.
This year, Christmas in the Park happened in the midst of a snowstorm. A white Christmas is a joyful Christmas wish for many, but for the homeless it means additional challenges of keeping warm and dry. Over 600 people lined up, some arriving as early as 6 a.m. to receive essential items.
The volunteers began setting up around 10:30, piling tables high with necessities and gifts. Blankets, gloves, underwear, and cold weather gear were present in abundance. Other tables held food ‘to go,’ including protein bars, sandwiches, and cans of soup. Women’s hygiene items were carefully packed in ziplock bags. Children’s toys, clothes, and diapers were laid out as Christmas morning offerings. Communion was offered to those who wanted it. The most critical items—sleeping bags and winter coats, were carefully sorted and equally distributed.
Volunteers walked up and down the line as people waited, handing out coffee, hand warmers, and chocolates.
Meanwhile, a grill was fired up to cook 750 hamburgers and 400 pounds of pulled pork, which had been slow-cooked starting two days previously.
We walked up and down the line of waiting individuals, reassuring them there would be food and items enough for everyone.
WE HEARD MANY STORIES IN THE PROCESS.
Some people didn’t want to talk. They were focused on waiting out the cold, anxious for time to pass. Others said a simple “thank you” or “Merry Christmas.” Others wanted to talk. Some shared the hardships of the past year—losses of friends or family members who had succumbed to the harshness of living homeless in a cold climate. Several spoke of kindnesses or the supportiveness of the Denver community, including positive stories of Denver police and good relationships there. Others told us about their sleeping bags and tents being stolen, or the loss of homes and support systems.
One man, Oscar, spoke at length about the goodness of people, and the universality of the value of kindness in the world’s religions. He was thrilled to see so many volunteers present, and so many of the homeless community leaving the park with more than they needed. After a long time spent among desperate people, the idea of abundance was an uplifting thing.
Another, Tony, had to sit with his back to a tree and drink water while recovering from a bout of nausea and light-headedness. He refused offers of medical treatment, but spoke at length about missing the warmth in San Diego and saying he would be all right.
A three-generation family came through, the grandmother wrapped in a fleece blanket, the mother pushing a stroller with a nine-month-old baby. We helped them carry bags of baby clothes, diapers, and toys for the young daughter. We spoke a combination of English and Spanish, and wished each other well.
The first man to arrive in the park was an active reserve Marine, hoping for gloves, long underwear, and a sleeping bag.
The line started moving precisely at noon. Volunteers helped fill large, sturdy bags. Kids distributed hugs and homemade bracelets.
An experience like this is not an easy one. The good feelings of connection and kindness and the satisfaction of filling people’s needs are complicated by the scale of the suffering and the sense of unfairness when imagining our ability to return to warm homes and Christmas Day family traditions.
Last year, the Christmas in the Park team ran out of sleeping bags. They ran out of hot food. They went through the winter coats.
This year, there was more than enough. There was an abundance.
On December 26th, the After Hours team was back in the park as usual, handing out lunchtime PBJ sandwiches again. They are there every single day, handing out over 500 sandwiches each week.
For some volunteers, this work resonates with a Christian sense of giving to those with less. For the Jewish volunteers, this was a small portion of the Christmas Day mitzvahs organized across Colorado. For many volunteers, this was a way to be with a positive and joyful community.
For all of us, it was a powerful and joyful day.