People started lining up for Modesto Gospel Mission's annual Christmas giveaway just after midnight Tuesday. By 11 a.m. Wednesday, the line spilled out of the parking lot and down Kerr Avenue.
It was the longest line Gospel Mission executive director Vern Deatherage had ever seen, and he was worried. "I just pray that we have enough toys for the kids," Deatherage said, eyeing the throng from beneath his black cowboy hat.
The Gospel Mission runs homeless shelters for men, women and children. It also serves two free meals a day and hands outs clothes and other necessities. Its Christmas giveaway — officially billed as the Happy Birthday Jesus Party — drew a record 2,300 people last year. Deatherage expected more this year.
The Gospel Mission doesn't advertise the Christmas event for fear it would be overwhelmed by crowds. Instead, it uses word of mouth to spread the news that it's serving a free hot lunch and handing out gifts to anyone who shows up.
Word had gotten around this week. The line included families pushing strollers, kids of all ages running around, a few people in wheelchairs, older men by themselves and a handful of dogs.
Some brought sleeping bags to make it through the night, when the temperature dropped to 38 degrees. Not everyone had coats. Some wrapped themselves in blankets and hunched their shoulders as they stood outside. Some waited in lawn chairs brought from home. Children played patty-cake to pass the time.
Standing quietly by himself reading a paperback was Phillip White, 68. He said his $980 a month in Social Secu-rity income only goes so far, so most mornings he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and walks 20 minutes to the Gospel Mission for a free breakfast. He did that Wednesday morning, then got in line at 7 a.m. for the free lunch.
"Modesto is one of the best places for people that don't make a lot of money," White said. "They can still survive because of all the food giveaways."
'Something for them to open'
Around the corner stood 35-year-old Mary Olivera. It was her first time at the Gospel Mission's Christmas giveaway. A year ago, she was working as a nurse's assistant at Memorial Medical Center. She was laid off six months ago and her unemployment benefits ran out in October. "It's stressful," Olivera said. "I never thought I would need help from someone else."
Wednesday, she wore only a gray hooded sweat shirt against the cold and kept her bare hands in her jean pockets. She joined the line just after 3:30 a.m. with the hope of getting presents for her two children. "I just want something for them to open," Oli- vera said.
Cupcakes for Jesus
At noon, Deatherage led the crowd in a prayer, then opened the Gospel Mission's doors. Inside, an army of volunteers went to work dishing out meals in the dining room. There was no birthday cake for Jesus, but Waterford's First Baptist Church supplied handmade cupcakes.
Once inside, a change came over the families and children who had been waiting grim-faced in the cold. Warmed by the food, they filed into a room full of pres- ents. Everyone was allowed to choose a gift. Eight-year-old Ariel Perez was hoping for a Nintendo DS, but she beamed when she got a brand-new Fashionista Barbie. On their way out, everyone got a stuffed animal, free socks, and hats and scarves. Waiting outside the back door was the grand finale, a nativity scene complete with dancing angels who shouted "Merry Christmas" to passing drivers on Yosemite Boulevard.
The day wrapped up about 3 p.m. after 2,200 meals had been served. Deatherage's praying apparently worked.
"It was one of the easiest ones we've ever done," he said. "It just went as smooth as cake. Everybody got a great gift. It turned out to be a wonderful day."
To donate to the Gospel Mission, go to www.homelessmission.org.