Their eyes shined with a humble thank you.
The men’s faces gleamed with anticipation for the upcoming Thanksgiving feast. Life had been tough for these homeless men, but the folks at the Firehouse Shelter were there to lend support. On this Thanksgiving Day, their troubles will have to wait. On this day, the universe exhaled a welcome respite.
When servers opened the kitchen windows overlooking the dining hall, the men got up and began to line up as they always did.
“No, no,” shouted a volunteer. “Today, we serve you at your table.”
The men looked at each other, grinned, then headed back to their tables. Staff and volunteers delivered plates full of turkey and all the fixings to nearly one hundred men. They all gathered to celebrate giving humble thanks.
The Firehouse Shelter was founded in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1983, and had recently moved to a new facility that is considered a marvel in design and innovation.
Brandon Haley is the Development Director for the shelter. “We used to be in a much smaller facility that was falling apart. We did a capital campaign and raised seven million dollars, then we moved to this brand new facility right before the pandemic.”
The new Firehouse Shelter has won major architectural awards and was touted for its leading-edge and convenient amenities. The housing area is clean with bunk beds and plenty of room, and the dining hall and kitchen are organized and spacious. A huge pantry is filled with shelves from floor to ceiling full of cans and bags of donated food. The shelter serves over 5000 homeless men every year, more than any other agency in Alabama. Their programs include employment readiness workshops, literacy skills, life training skills, street outreach, and a clothing closet.
“The Birmingham community has been good to us,” Haley said. “Firehouse Ministries provides 215 beds for the homeless at 11 sites throughout Birmingham. We also have a day shelter and supportive housing for men with serious mental illness.”
One short phrase in the mission statement of Firehouse Ministries says it all, ‘. . . to break the cycle of homelessness . . .’
“We don’t just place a band-aid on homelessness; we provide these men with a way out, a job, affordable housing, and hope,” Haley said.
On this Thanksgiving Day at The Firehouse Shelter, you could almost see it—the hope. In the dining hall, Haley beamed at the men who were nudging each other and smiling at volunteers serving them at their tables. “Today is different, it is Thanksgiving after all. We wanted the men to feel special,” Haley said.
The men dined on their feast while chatting with each other. One thing was obvious: their gratitude for what they had.
“Thanksgiving is different than every other day. In addition to serving the clients at their tables, there’s enough for seconds. And all the tables are decorated with drawings from local school children.”
Four volunteers helped prepare and serve the Thanksgiving meal. James and Kim Brittle, along with their sons James and Jack, lined up in the kitchen and filled plates. The family has been coming to the Firehouse Shelter on Thanksgiving Day for ten years.
James helped prepare the meal in the kitchen. “Kim and I decided years ago to demonstrate gratitude to our boys, and the best way was serving others. The kids have enjoyed coming here and seeing that the homeless are real people. They’re not invisible, and they deserve dignity and respect.”
After eating, the men retired to the lobby and the courtyard. Haley walked around talking to the men and shaking their hands. She listened to their problems and offered assistance. Most of all, she offered hope.
“These men become part of our family,” Haley said. “They end up here due to different reasons—addiction, mental illness, or bad choices. One older man came here after he was bankrupt from his wife’s cancer treatment. We take them as they are, and we help them.”
Out in the courtyard, the afternoon stretched lazily as the sun warmed up the crisp and cool day. The men sat around tables with unspoken gratitude in their gazes, contentment hovering among the occasional jagged scars.
“I lost my job and found myself here,” a client named Brian said. “I am thankful for this place. If I weren’t here, I would be sleeping on the street. I’m also thankful for being sober. The folks at Firehouse Ministries care about us, and they help people with medical needs.”
An older man named Wilbert patted Brian on the shoulder. He was at least 80 years old, and his smile could light up an entire city block. His eyes possessed that inner light of wisdom, knowledge, and eloquence.
“I’m thankful for being able to share my joy with these folks. We all have a beating heart, and we all feel for each other. We all have empathy for each other. Empathy is caring about each other, about our families, about Firehouse Ministries. And today, on this Thanksgiving Day, I‘m thankful for empathy.”
A cloud of rain thundered above forcing the men to head inside. In their eyes, ample gratitude and humble empathy shined.
For more information, visit www.firehouseshelter.com