Due to family obligations, Cyrus and I wandered in late.
There was controlled chaos everywhere.
The cafeteria was buzzing. It was packed. It was decorated. It was over-whelming. It was cold outside, but steaming inside.There must have been over 400 people crammed in, lined up and eager to get a plate of delicious food. There were boy scouts happily serving the dinner guests plates of chicken, ribs, potato salad, greens, buns and, quite frankly, the best bread pudding I'd ever tasted. Two bands provided some great live music and a couple of cute little sisters were given the microphone to proudly sing their ABCs.
What made this night extra special was the attendance of two of the Tuskegee Airmen. These very respected African American heroes weathered cold temperatures to share a meal with hundreds of homeless people. They are both over 90 and told stories of their amazing flights. Even though they both had rank, an indisputable record and are modern day heroes, their stories were tainted by the reality of segregation and discrimination. During their Tour of Duty, the color of their skin deemed them ineligible to do many things that the lesser ranked white troops were able to do. They returned home to Chicago, not as heroes, but to live once again under that familiar yolk of Jim Crow and racism. It wasn't until many years later that they received the recognition they deserved.
Yet, despite all that, Welton Taylor and Julius Jackson do not live in bitterness. They were given a table of honour, yet they wandered around the cafeteria freely sharing both stories and warmth. They seemed to touch every life they bumped into. Col. Lt. Julius Jackson spoke to my 8 year old son Cyrus for a few minutes and offered him some wisdom. This 92 year old man's kind compassionate spirit shone through, as he shuffled around the room and through the masses meeting many of the residents, kids and boy scouts.
I came into the crowded cafeteria late and was asked to point out our homeless vets who had not yet been served. We honoured them by letting them know they didn't have to stand in the extremely long line, instead they were offered a seat at the table with the Tuskegee Airmen. Actually, most of them preferred not to be seated in the limelight and wanted to sit with everyone else, but were all thankful to dodge the line and be brought their special plates of food by the boy scouts. The vets loved it, our homeless population loved it and everyone who stepped into our humble cafeteria loved it. How do I know that? Because I've never had so many people personally thank me for putting on this great event. I felt a little guilty because I was getting the majority of the credit for something Karen, Sandy and others had tirelessly organized.
As I walked home from CCO, one part of me smiled and another part grieved. I could proudly proclaim the success of an event for people who deserved it, yet I was simultaneously saddened by the sickening reality that this country has so many and too many veterans that are homeless. Despite what we believe about the present wars in the Middle East or our philosophies on the rights and wrongs of war, weapons and military spending, every one of us should believe that homeless veterans deserve better. They served their country, they risked their lives and sometimes went on multiple tours, only to return home and try to cope with the feelings of rejection and alienation.
Let's face some facts; studies reveal some utterly horrendous statistics, where veterans lead the way in homelessness and suicides. This shouldn't be the case! I know too many without income, without support, without medical coverage and without a home. This needs to change! We can't drive around with "support our troops" bumper stickers, while despising the panhandling vet on the corner, yet that happens every day. We can't sing the praises of our active troops, while constantly ignoring the vet sleeping in the alley behind our homes, yet that happens every day. We can't justify billions of dollars launched into warfare and armament, while such a small percentage goes toward those returning home with life-changing physical, mental and emotional scars. We can't ignore and forget these men and women living under viaducts, in shelters and riding trains every night, they need to be remembered, respected and honoured. They need love!
My personal wish is that the Veteran's Administration got more money to use for housing, benefits, treatment and so forth. My experience with dealing with the VA thinks that they are overwhelmed by bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo and the shear mass of vets begging, pleading and crying for assistance. We cannot just leave it to them, we also need to accept responsibility and lift up, help out and embrace these men and women. We cannot just expect others to do it, we must reach into ourselves, cry out to the Lord and provide our brothers and sisters with what they're desperately seeking and needing!
There's a simple reason we decided to start this annual tradition; Jesus said, "as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto Me!" Homeless veterans have sadly become this country's "least of these", and this is one of the ways we have decided to give them a little honour, respect and Jesus!
One Veteran's Day dinner, located in a humble little homeless shelter, on a cold November night, may seem like a small insignificant thing. It certainly does not solve the abundance of issues veterans face daily, but this celebration provided these "rejected" men and women with hope, compassion and love! And I gotta say, they all did have a wonderfully good time!
- Here's a link to the CCO facebook page containing more photos of our 2011 Veterans Day celebration
- Here's a link to many statistics regarding homeless veterans from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website.
- Here's a link to a story I wrote regarding some veterans who have stayed or are staying at CCO: Seven Weary Veterans!