by JT Johnson
Christmas in Homestead, 1992
Giving Thanks With A Grateful Heart was such a great success that sponsors were lining up to help HCOG (now Life Pointe) do something special for Andrew survivors during the Christmas season. The energetic, irrepressible Dr. William E. Bailey of the Insurance Information Institute was not only open to doing something big for Homestead area, he set about raising enough money to do it. What a fine Christian business man!
Bill seemed to know personally the CEOs of virtually every significant insurance company in America : Hartford , Allstate, USF&G, Church Mutual, Mutual of Omaha, as well as Independent Insurance Agents of America from numerous states responded in substantive ways to his appeals for sponsorship of the HCOG Disaster Relief Fund. HCOG used this fund to help thousands of Andrew survivors and we did so without using one penny of it for administrative costs. Every dollar donated was a dollar spent on Andrew survivors.
Christmas is always a tough time for people in extreme situations. It is supposed to be a happy time for families, but it is hard to be filled with good cheer when your roof is gone and you are sleeping in the many makeshift shelters that dotted the ravaged trail left by that monster, Hurricane Andrew.
So we came up with a way to empower parents to be the hero to their children. The idea was to provide vouchers, worth $25, to parents for each of their children so that the parents would be the heroes to their own kids. Parents with five children got five vouchers. Parents could buy for Christmas what they, in their parental wisdom, decided would be best for their children.
About two weeks before Christmas, I went to Sears at Cutler Ridge Mall as it was called then with a HCOG disaster relief fund check, marched up to their customer service window and tried to buy one thousand (1000) $25.00 gift certificates. At first they didn’t notice me standing at the window, but finally someone came walking by inside the window and decided to ask me if I needed help. Words do not describe the range of looks I got when I told them I wanted to spend $25,000 buying Sears Gifts Certificates. The Credit Manager was called, who, apparently believing me to be some kook, told me a check for that much could not be used to buy Sears Gift Certificates, but that I would have to use a Cashier’s Check or a Certified Check. We all know that banks routinely verify checks, especially those drawn on local banks, which ours, of course, was. It was about noon . I didn’t waste time arguing, but told them I’d be right back. I went to our bank in Homestead , the same one we provided free hot meals every day for three months. Mr. Losner, the Bank’s president, instructed the cashier to get me, ASAP and without service charge, a Cashier’s check for $25,000.00 from HCOG’s Disaster Relief Fund made out to Sears.
When I walked back into the Sears Customer Service Department an hour later, I heard a guy behind the window say,” He’s back!” This time the Store Manager was summoned and she showed up fast. My treatment was a lot different this time. I was now being called, “Pastor”. However, when the Cashier’s Check for 25k smolliens was produced you should have seen their expressions!
Well, giving away $25,000, in twenty-five dollars increments is not as easy as you think. Bill Bailey provided a Florida State Highway Patrol escort. Crowd control was an issue we had a bit of experience with after Andrew, having endured a mini-riot giving away food and water. We controlled the crowd by requiring a signed, duly approved and filled out voucher to be exchanged for the gift certificate. The number of blank vouchers were limited to the number of Certificates we had. About a week prior to Christmas itself we used four church locations as well as our own location as staging areas for the gift giving. Blank vouchers were distributed by our fellow church congregations. Each voucher request had to be authorized by the respective church’s pastor, who had to approve that each request was valid. This eliminated fraud, strengthened the local church and pastor and gave proof to our donors, if they ever requested it, where every voucher went. It also provided a terrific database for follow-ups for each church. We distributed vouchers to every significant demographic we knew about in South Dade , without regard to their church or religious affiliation.
It was exhilarating. It was moving. It was joyful. I never felt so pumped. Giving is truly more blessed than receiving. My hand was shaken, my neck hugged and my picture taken so much a presidential candidate would have been downright envious of the whole day. Parents cried and children laughed. Scores of “Christmas in Homestead ” tee shirts, donated toys and turkeys were distributed, free of charge, too.
Then on Christmas Eve, ‘neath a beautiful night sky freckled with twinking stars, peering through the remaining steel beams of our roofless sanctuary, we sang Christmas Carols by candlelight, and reminded ourselves of another starry night about two thousand years ago when angels sang, a baby was born and Heaven kissed the planet Earth.
I’d like to tell you about the time The Sugar Bowl took up an offering for HCOG. I’ll save that for another time.
I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. It was beautiful. It was bigger than any person or church group. It was a moment ordained by God. Being an active part of the volunteers along with my mom, Arlene, Nancy, and many others, I can tell you that this was an amazing time in the history of Life Pointe/HCOG and the City of Homestead. So many people were able to share in a beautiful time with their families in the midst of the ruins of their once normal neighborhoods. Many families were given the opportunity to see the true meaning of Christmas, demonstrated by the tireless efforts of HCOG through relief and community outreach. The carols in the roofless building that many people mistakenly refer to as a church was memorable and touching. That year proved what we now know: We are the church and we meet in a building; the building is not the church. The building doesn’t have to have a steeple in order to hold a church; we show this at the theater. The building doesn’t even have to have a roof, as we have proven following Andrew. The building just makes it a little more comfortable for the church to get together.