By Elli Bloomberg, Street Sense
Hundreds of people gathered in Washington D.C.’s Franklin Square Park in early September, coming together to share prayer, entertainment, food and clothing. Children posed with Mickey and Minnie Mouse as they waited in line to have their faces painted. Adults sifted through stacks of clothing donations including socks, flannel shirts, business-casual blouses, puffy winter jackets, stylish peacoats and patterned pants.
As smooth jazz, courtesy of a band from Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME), entertained the crowd, under a nearby awning, volunteers readied buckets of soapy water for a foot-washing ceremony.
This was the type of community Don Gardner, the event’s organiser and former Street Sense vendor, set out to create. As the founder of recently created non-profit Real Love Ministry, he aimed to provide entertainment and spiritual fulfilment as well as food and clothing.
“When you spend all day with people [experiencing homelessness], there’s a difference,” Gardner says. “When you come out here, pass out food and clothes and then leave… they’re used to that. I’ve been out here, I’ve watched it. It helps for a minute, it’s like a Band-Aid. But they need heart surgery. They need brain surgery. People are hurting here.”
Gardner knows this pain from personal experience. When he was released from prison in 2006, he headed to the Franklin School, a now-shuttered shelter across 13th Street NW on the east side of Franklin Square. Driven out by unsanitary conditions and poor treatment, he spent his nights in the park.
“State troopers used to run us out of this park,” Gardner recalls. He says it was especially hard holding down a job while trying to bathe and get enough sleep. “The Lord brought me back here. I thank God for using me as a vessel.”
To Gardner, nothing shows humility and love more than his chosen theme: “Washing of the Feet.” In the Bible, he explained, Christ washed his disciples’ feet before he was crucified. This symbolised leadership and service.
“When you wash somebody’s feet, they know that you care. That’s why so many people were drawn to the tent,” Gardner says.
Bobbie Roseboro, who came with a friend and both of their daughters, says she felt uplifted by the prayer, music and foot-washing. She didn’t come for the food and clothing.
Clayton Scott, an event volunteer, says, “We’re here not just to give [people] a shirt or a meal, but to give them God’s word.” Scott, who became friends with Gardner at Central Union Mission, says he was homeless and struggling with addiction for ten years before he found religion. 18 years later, his youngest son is about to start college.
“I’m living proof that if you trust the Lord, he will give you your due,” says Scott.
The gathering was co-hosted by Gardner’s non-profit and his church, Metropolitan AME. He began making concrete plans six months ago, though he’d been thinking about it for over a year. He brought the idea to his pastor at Metropolitan AME, who encouraged him to join forces with Mighty Men of Metropolitan, the church’ men’s ministry. The group obtained money and clothing from Merryl Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, The Tower Companies, and a few of the city’s law firms. Gardner’s friends and family also donated. Altogether, he says, they raised over $12,000.
This paid for more than enough clothing, shoes and school supplies for everyone who needed them. Gardner estimated that between 400 and 500 people came throughout the day.
There were even a few bins of children’s undergarments left over, which Gardner passed out at housing projects. The donations also funded the stage for the jazz band, professional videographers, the costumed characters and the face-painter.
The event coincided with a bi-monthly food and clothing giveaway organised by The Widow’s Pantry, a local non-profit. They received enough donations to feed at least 200 people, according to Founder and Executive Director Keena M. Trapps.
Gardner recruited local hip-hop artist Johnaa Flemming to perform in the afternoon, with Flemming’s six-year-old daughter, Mia, also performing. Attendees and videographers filmed her as she sang along to Trip Lee’s “Sweet Victory.”
“This is the first time I’ve been to one of these events, and I thank God I came,” Flemming says. “When you’re at an event like this where you come to help people less fortunate, it just humbles you. In today’s economy, any one of us could be put here. The line is this thin… so we’ve gotta help each other.”