[Episcopal News Service] Instead of power-shopping the Thanksgiving day-after sales, Robyn LaRocca and her teenage daughters will be doing laundry, and preparing and serving meals to Houston-area homeless.
They are teaming up with about 20 members of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Houston for “Bless” Friday, a Nov. 29 alternative to the traditional “Black” Friday’s unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season.
She hopes her daughters, Rachel, 18, and Sarah, 14, “will appreciate serving as opposed to shopping and, hopefully, once they get there, they’ll be transformed. It’s a real time to teach a value to them,” said LaRocca, St. John’s executive assistant for outreach and special ministry.
And values, not bargains are what “Bless” Friday is all about, says Charles Fox, who founded the event four years ago.
Inspired by a Thanksgiving season sermon, he realized that “we’ve got to do something about the way we’re starting our Christmas celebration,” said Fox, 53, an oil and gas engineer.
“We’re focusing on buying things and getting things and taking our focus off Jesus,” he said. “I got the idea that we needed to change the day after Thanksgiving from Black Friday to Bless Friday so we could start our season of worship, acknowledging what Jesus would have us do as an alternative to the frenzied shopping.”
This year, participation rose from five area churches of varying denominations to seven, and Fox is determined to keep it simple, he said.
“What we’re trying to do is to get churches and Christian organizations to schedule service opportunities the day after Thanksgiving in order to help start their season with service to prepare their hearts for a season of worship,” he said.
Anyone, anywhere can join in, individually or collectively, he said. “We suggest just keeping it simple,” Fox added.
“Just go to a local food bank or soup kitchen, or assist in any place set up to aid the community or where you already volunteer.”
John Kenner, and about 15 others from St. Francis Church in Houston heeded the call and signed onto this year’s efforts.
Black Fridays usually meant, for Kenner, staying home to watch football on television “while his wife power-shopped,” he said.
Instead this year, Bless Friday will mean helping in the clean-up of a local park, he said, during a recent telephone interview with ENS.
“We’ll have something to do together and give back, and it’s a better experience for the both of us, to spend some time together,” said Kenner, 48, owner of an electric submersible pump manufacturing business.
“I like it because you can go out and give back and do it in a fairly simple fashion,” he said, adding that “if the weather holds up for us, we will go to one of the local schools and clean up there, too, if there’s time. It’s great to get a little momentum and do some good.”
Similarly, in Milwaukie, Oregon, St. John’s Church, is doing good on Bless Friday by hosting a blood drive on Nov. 29 with a goal of participation from at least 45 donors, according to a note on the church’s website.
“The Red Cross is in desperate need of blood donations – especially during the winter months and holiday season,” according to the announcement.
Jennifer White, administrative and development coordinator for Christ Church Cathedral’s The Beacon outreach ministry, said Bless Friday volunteers “will help with preparing and serving a cafeteria style meal and with cleanup.
“They’ll help in the laundry, as far as washing and drying clothes for our clients,” as well as assisting in the intake area, where clients come in to register for daily services.
“Volunteers will all have a chance to mingle with clients,” White said. “There will definitely be one-on-one communication,” which will make for a meaningful experience for both volunteer and recipient, she said.
“From a client perspective, the homeless are often looked upon as the lowest of the low,” she added. “Many people see a homeless person sitting on the sidewalk and walk right past them as though they don’t exist,” she said during a recent telephone interview with ENS.
She expects the day’s blessings to go both ways, she added.
“Just on a regular day, not even around the holidays, the thanks we receive from people who get services here, is overwhelming,” White said.
“People are so appreciative of how they’re treated because we’re big on dignity and respect. We address everyone by name. We want them to feel they are important when they walk through our doors and that they’re welcome here. We treat them as family,” she said.
Those kinds of connections are what LaRocca, of St. John the Divine, hopes to experience with her daughters. “I really enjoying serving others and it’s a wonderful way for my family to connect, a wonderful way to see others connect.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.