'In This Together': Candlelight Vigil Calls Attention to Homelessness
Nearly 100 small electric candles lit up the dark and damp Southern Pines Downtown Park on Wednesday evening as residents gathered to remember thousands who have died in North Carolina while homeless.
St. Joseph of the Pines partnered with Family Promise, Friend to Friend and the Sandhills/Moore Coalition for Human Care in sponsoring the event, in which attendees were asked to bring a blanket, scarf, coat and hat to distribute among the local homeless.
Speakers, prayers and musical performances from the St. Joseph of the Pines choir filled the hourlong program, which all took place on a foldout stage of St. Joseph's "We Can Do Moore" semitrailer.
St. Joseph of the Pines President Anita Holt, who gave the welcome, said Dec. 21 was chosen not only because it is National Homelessness Memorial Day, but also because it is the first day of winter and the darkest day of the year, emphasizing the tragedy of the situation.
She pointed out that an ice storm forced a similar vigil planned for last January to be canceled.
"But homelessness gets no such cancellation policy, not unless we make it so," she said.
Southern Pines Mayor David McNeill said more seasonably cold temperatures would have reminded everyone of the difficulties the homeless face all day, every day during the winter.
"We wouldn't have wanted to stay outside for an extended period of time," McNeill said.
McNeill also spoke of "how fortunate we are" to have such a generous community. He mentioned the churches, the county programs and the local businesses that provide for those in need.
"And thanks especially to you and what you give," he told members of the audience.
The Rev. Carl Naylor, director of mission outreach at St. Joseph of the Pines, questioned why society allows such horror to continue happening to people who are obviously in need.
"Each [one who has died] was one of a kind, a person with unique gifts, attributes, hopes and dreams," Naylor said.
Naylor called for a group effort to help combat -homelessness.
"We're all in this together," he said. "Let's act as if it were so."
Representatives from Family Promise, Friend to Friend and the Sandhills/Moore Coalition for Human Care also spoke about each organization's role supporting the homeless in the community. They said more help is needed.
"We all have a tendency to turn the other cheek and not see those who are struggling," said Barrett Walker, director of the Coalition. "But having a home is a basic, inherent right for all people."
Brenda Burt, founder of the God Sent Angels Mission in Carthage, offered a unique perspective when she stepped up to the podium. After graduating from high school, Burt was herself homeless, living under a bridge and in the woods for several years.
She emphasized that the help she received from others gave her the second chance she needed.
"I couldn't have made it without people like you," Burt said.
Shortly after Burt spoke, members of the audience were asked to turn on their electric candles and hold them high while Father Robert Shea, resident priest at St. Joseph, offered a prayer for the homeless and blessed the blankets and winter clothes that had been donated. The donated items filled much of the interior of the semi.
Burt brought a moving van packed with the blankets and winter clothes she had collected.
A number of vigil participants said they were moved by the ceremony.
"I just wanted to be a part," said Angela Wood, of Whispering Pines. "The idea of seeing something like this at Christmastime really spoke to me."
G. Ridzon, of Southern Pines, who volunteers at St. Joseph, said, "The vigil gave me an even better understanding of these people who just can't afford anything."
Susie Buchanan, director of community relations at St. Joseph, said she hopes the vigil will help promote awareness of the homeless problem in Moore County.
St. Joseph launched a public awareness campaign I Am The Face Of The Homeless In Moore County, featuring three local homeless families last winter.
During the campaign, St. Joseph conducted research to see how local residents perceive homeless people, and 25 percent of those who responded said they believed Moore County doesn't have a problem at all.
"With the campaign, we wanted to paint a picture of who they really are and what their stories are," Buchanan said. "The vigil allowed us to revisit the campaign and show the community that these people are still homeless."
In closing the vigil, Naylor said, "Seeing all of you who came out here tonight was the best Christmas present ever."
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