I would like to highlight the journey of a remarkable woman who shares her life, meals, and love with a few friends. This description could be for anyone of us, except Toija Fitzgerald’s friends are not just people she met at school events, swim team practice, or Bible study; they include people she has lunch with in a public park every Wednesday and those she encounters around town who are experiencing homelessness. Toija has a unique ability to make everyone feel comfortable, loved, and accepted. She doesn’t feel the need to be part of an organization to make a difference in people’s lives. Besides homeschooling her children, volunteering for swim team and engaging in a myriad of other activities, she shares her joy with all who meet her each day.
Over 10 years ago, Toija read three books that had a major impact on her: Crazy Love by Francis Chan, The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne, and The Bible (specifically, Matthew). She explains, “I had this tremendous tug at my heart to have a picnic at a park where it’s known to have folks without homes hanging about. I wanted to love on some fellow humans who might need some extra loving on. Little did I know that I was the one to get loved on by them in the end. Coincidentally (no, I don’t believe it was a coincidence either), there were a few other folks who read those same books, felt the same urge at the same time, and we started meeting regularly to have lunch together in the park every Wednesday.”
“Five years or so into it, some of the city leaders of Costa Mesa decided that we and a few others were drawing the homeless to the city or at least to this particular park. It was hard for me to believe that 3 or 4 moms and dads with their kids in tow bringing a bit of food to the park on Wednesdays for an hour and a half once a week were attracting the homeless in droves. Truly, our food wasn’t that good. There are soup kitchens and churches serving food all over. This had been a park with homeless folks for years and years. The city’s answer? Tear down the structure that provides shade and take out the tables.”
“You see, just like anyone else, folks without homes like to have picnics. It’s nice to be able to eat with friends outside on the grass in the fresh air. We are all thankful for churches and soup kitchens and so many other organizations who provide meals to those without a place to cook their own meals, but it’s kind of nice to have a break from that and eat with friends in the park. It’s organic. It’s pleasant. It’s real. And it’s enabled us to connect and have conversations of a different kind than those times when I’ve been a part of a soup kitchen or a church meal.“
“Now our group is once again feeling the heat of picnicking in the park. Tables have been removed. Arguments in newspapers and at council meetings are being raised. Really? Are people actually mad at us for loving on other people— people who have nowhere to sleep, no place to rest, little money, little food, little dignity, who already feel beaten down and ignored. Are we becoming a culture where the Good Samaritan is a naughty thing to be? Are we becoming intolerant of folks trying to help other folks?”
“If you’ve never taken the time to get to know your fellow “neighbor,” I’m sorry. You are missing out. I know it can be uncomfortable, but just remember, our friends without homes are a whole lot more uncomfortable than those of us with a roof over our heads will ever be. When you get to know these dear folks with stories that will blow your socks off, and then when you are getting encouragement and love back from them, you can’t help but want to come back and be with them. It’s a two-way street these Wednesday picnics.”
“And it’s not just a picnic. From our Wednesday picnics we started learning the needs of our friends without homes: laundry and showers are two biggies. So after getting kicked out of several local laundromats, our little group put together a laundry trailer that is used in Costa Mesa and a few other cities at local churches. We were also blessed with a shower trailer that is active at the same time (it’s pretty nice to put clean clothes on a clean body, right?). Our Wednesday lunches became a platform for not only friendship and fellowship but practical support. We’ve had many of our friends find housing, find jobs, fly across the country to go back to their families, find better health care, find rehab, and a lot more. We won’t take credit for that, but we have been able to be there with them and walk beside them encouraging them beyond Wednesday lunch. That’s the part many don’t see or understand. How do you know how to help your fellow man if you don’t get to know him or her? And how DO you get to know him or her? If you actually want to BE “the church” not just assume “the church” or some other organization is going to do it for you, then you gotta actually show up yourselves. And, so, why the picnic? Because the value of being valued by someone not part of an official organization is, well, invaluable. Just ask our friends without homes.”
Although Toija doesn’t like being singled out for credit, I think it is important to spotlight her and her work as a beacon for all of us. Thank you for all you do, Toija Fitzgerald.