As Pastor Brenda Stevenson gets ready to provide another Christmas breakfast to low-income people at New Outreach Christian Ministries in Charlotte, she remembers a time when she needed help.
Forty years ago, having to choose between paying the rent or buying a Christmas toy for their child, she and her husband, Norman, stood in line at a Charlotte charity. They’d taken care of the rent and couldn’t afford a toy.
After that experience, the couple started the nonprofit ministry in west Charlotte that provides assistance to the poor year-round, with a special focus on Christmas. This year, Brenda Stevenson feels the same way she did standing in line 40 years ago: needy, but for a different reason.
What she’s short of now is food to feed the 1,000 people expected to show up Wednesday morning for breakfast. Donations are coming in, but she doesn’t have enough. The want list includes whole or sliced ham, grits and apple sauce. More toys are also needed.
“We’re not quite there yet,” said Stevenson, 58. “There’s so much to do and so little time left.”
On Saturday, Stevenson, her husband and several volunteers were busy sorting food, clothing and toys at the ministry.
Jane Whitley, president-elect of the Democratic Women of Mecklenburg County, stopped by with toys the group had collected. She has known Stevenson for years and called her “a wonderful, wonderful woman.”
“She’s an absolute angel,” Whitley said. “Everybody knows her, and she’s the most giving person in the community.”
‘Hope and healing’
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Chipp Bailey was planning to come by the ministry Monday with a donation of whole hams. It’s a gift made possible by a Sheriff’s Office charitable giving fund.
He called Stevenson “truly a shepherd with a flock.”
“It makes you feel good to see her and be around her,” Bailey said. “She understands the spirit of Christmas.”
A Charlotte native, Stevenson said she first became aware of the plight of poor people at age 11.
While her mother slept, Stevenson heard a knock on the front door; when she answered, she found a homeless man who asked for food.
Stevenson ignored her mother’s warning to avoid strangers. Instead, she went to the kitchen, made a bologna sandwich, poured a glass of water, and took food and drink to the man waiting on the doorstep.
The image of someone in need stuck with her and planted the seed for her work with low-income people.
At the Christmas morning breakfast, Stevenson hears many stories of hardship and sorrow.
She knows people are hurting. But the stories don’t depress her. She’s too busy handing out food, clothing and toys – and seeing reactions.
“I get hope and healing in my heart from putting smiles on their faces,” Stevenson said.
She doesn’t know exactly why donations are down this year, but she thinks it’s because of such factors as cuts in food stamps, people still being out of work and reduced unemployment benefits.
‘I’m for the people’
Circumstances can change. Stevenson said people who have volunteered to hand out food in the Christmas program one year found themselves in line to get help the next year.
“I know what it’s like to want and to not have,” she said. “I want to help people who are hurting like I was 40 years ago.”
She knows that for many, the Christmas breakfast will be the only meal they have that day. And she’s hopeful enough donations will come in to fulfill her mission of helping all who come.
“I couldn’t enjoy sitting down to Christmas dinner knowing somebody was going to bed hungry,” said Stevenson.
“I’m for the people, honest to God.”
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