NORMAL – Melanice Jones has a full-time job, but it’s still hard to buy coats and holiday gifts for her three kids – especially while the family is between houses.
So she was grateful – and tearful – as she explained the love, acceptance and help she found at Eastview Christian Church’s Imagine program.
“There are people that still care. … This is a big help for our family,” she said, grabbing the hand of Melanie Johnson, a longtime friend who was Jones’ personal guide through a maze of coats organized by gender and size; a variety of toys boxed by age group; and gift-wrapping, hugs and prayer.
Imagine, now in its seventh year, served close to 1,000 families Saturday in partnership with Calvary Baptist, Mount Moriah Christian and Mount Pisgah Baptist churches and Jesus House. Families signed up in October, and church members answered the call to volunteer as a host for each family; donate coats, toys and food; staff gift-wrapping stations; translate for French and Spanish speakers; and drive recipients to and from the church.
Kip Davis, for instance, signed up for a 6:30 to 11 a.m. shift directing traffic in the massive parking lot. Icicles on his mustache were testament to the 12-degree temperature.
“When they come in, they are confused (about where to go),” he said, dressed in his deer-hunting gear and waving striped sticks to direct cars. “When they leave, there are smiles.”
That sentiment was music to the ears of Lisa Miller-Rich, the church’s pastor of local compassion outreach. As she led a quick tour, she paused to jump in front of a recipient alongside his host, who was pushing a cart loaned from Sam’s Club.
“What’s the password?” she teased. “Jesus loves me,” the man quickly responded, earning a grin and a hug from the minister.
In its initial years, hundreds of recipients would stand in line for a chance at whatever coats were available. Over time, church leaders organized the program with specific appointment times for those who had signed up, and offered time in the afternoon for walk-ins. Families were greeted by name as soon as they walked in the door.
“We don’t do numbers. We do names. Jesus knows your name, so we don’t pretend that we don’t,” said Miller-Rich, explaining hosts also offer a listening ear or pray with families if they choose.
Johnson, who has known Jones for years outside of church, has volunteered with Imagine every year.
“I just want to be able to help people and share my love of Jesus with them,” she said.