Before dawn Wednesday, dozens of families and individuals lined up outside New Outreach Christian Ministries in west Charlotte.
Some came wrapped in blankets. Others combated the below-freezing temperatures with sweatshirts and toboggans.
Conversation was scarce. Within an hour, however, the scene was different.
The once-shivering left the church sanctuary warm and encouraged. They carried trash bags full of toys, to-go boxes of sliced ham, grits and applesauce, and boxes full of clothes. And filling the silence was laughter, spoken blessings and the strains of gospel music loud enough to hear down the street.
“I call it ‘The Miracle on Gossett Avenue,’ ” said pastor Brenda Stevenson of New Outreach Christian Ministries, who, 40 years ago, started the event that serves hundreds of low-income area residents every year.
Stevenson, 58, was once in their shoes. When she was 18, she and her husband, Norman, approached the Christmas season with just enough money to cover that month’s rent. There was nothing left over to spend on a toy for their 2-year-old daughter, Sharkeeta.
So the couple waited in line at a local charity. “I had the same need,” Stevenson said, pointing to the crowds filling the church’s pews.
The situation inspired Stevenson to start her own ministry, providing assistance to the poor year-round, with an especially big Christmas celebration.
And now Sharkeeta Stevenson, 42, has spent every Christmas morning of the past 40 years with her mother, brother and father, giving back.
“All my life,” she said, pointing out her two daughters, ages 25 and 21, also volunteering.
One of them, she said, had four wisdom teeth pulled that week. Sharkeeta Stevenson told the ailing daughter she could forgo this year’s event to recover and rest.
“She said ‘no,’ ” Sharkeeta recalled, grinning.
This year, New Outreach Christian Ministries had close to 75 volunteers helping at the time of the big event.
Some arrived before 6 a.m. Christmas morning to begin cooking, while others packed bags full of snacks for individuals to eat later. Volunteers were also posted at the door to the sanctuary, ushering the men, women and children inside.
There the individuals filled out forms with their names, the names of their kids, their ages and what they needed. They took seats in the pews, then volunteers, using the form, brought them food and bags of toys.
Brenda Stephenson spoke from a wheelchair at the front of the church. “Are you ready?” she yelled to the crowd as her 37-year-old son, Gerald, started to play the familiar refrain of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” on a keyboard.
“Come on, clap your hands,” she urged. “Give somebody a hug. Then give somebody a smile, whether you brushed your teeth or not. It’s Christmas.”
“I’ve been there before,” says volunteer Kathy Phillips, who was once one of the people in line outside the church. She and her kids had struggled with homelessness, but after attending the Christmas morning celebration five years ago, they left with toys, trucks and bicycles.
Now Phillips is a deacon at New Outreach Christian Ministries and spends her Christmas mornings spreading the joy she once needed so desperately.
“It’s a great thing to see little kids who (without the event) would not get anything for Christmas, and when they leave, they’ve got a smile on their face,” Phillips said.
Sharing with neighbors
Occasionally former volunteers find themselves in need of help.
That was the case for Shirley Hathcock, 61. Her husband died three years ago, and now two of her four sons live with her. She said she had nothing to give their children for Christmas.
So Hathcock was the first person in line at 5:45 a.m., donning a blue parka and walking with a limp, the effect of an ankle injury that required surgery.
“I’m not able to stand on my feet a whole lot,” Hathcock said, sitting on the red carpeted steps at the front of the church. So the volunteers brought things to her: a stack of to-go boxes, a whole ham and plastic bags of toys for Hathcock’s four grandchildren, ages 2 to 12. Brenda Stevenson enveloped her in a hug.
“Who’s the reason for the season?” Stevenson said to the crowd.
“Jesus!” a chorus of voices answered.
Later that morning, the volunteers would take the food out into the community, delivering hundreds of meals to homeless shelters, senior citizens and people who weren’t able to attend.
Giving is what Christmas is all about, Stevenson said, which is why they also ask recipients to pay it forward.
As they left, the people were given large boxes full of clothes, from women’s scarves to boys’ athletic clothes. Stevenson asked that they go through the box at home, and after selecting clothes for themselves, share with their neighbor.
“The Bible says, ‘Go out and make disciples,’ ” Stevenson said. “That’s what they’re doing.”
McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045 On Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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