Second Thoughts: Park gathering provides welcome sanctuary
by Jon Mendelson
Jan 04, 2013 | 4832 views | 0 0 comments | 393 393 recommendations | email to a friend | print
For more than three years, Bill and Kathy Syler have ministered to those in need of food and fellowship.

Each Sunday, they and others from across San Joaquin County gather in Tracy’s Dr. Powers Park and serve a free lunch.

They do it for a number of reasons, but one reason they don’t is for recognition.

Angela Kennedy, however, didn’t think that was right.

The 44-year-old homeless Tracy resident visited the office one day in hopes of giving the couple kudos she thought was well-deserved.

“These people care,” she told me, insisting I tag along.

I headed out the next Sunday, Dec. 16, to see for myself. And after spending an hour in a chilly wind, I agreed with Kennedy. The Sylers and their compatriots are due serious props.

The Sylers weren’t there when I showed up. But there were plenty of people who invited me into the fold.

Dave Rose and Cindi Silva were among the numerous volunteers helping set up service of lasagna and salad when I arrived to the park’s shade structure at 1 p.m.

There was no need of shade that day — temperatures hung at about 50 degrees and a brisk breeze blew under a canopy of clouds. But someone had thought of that, having strung a blue tarp as a windbreak and fixing up a propane heater to ward off the chill.

With the warmth of spirit there, it almost didn’t matter that the heater malfunctioned.

“It’s doing God’s work,” Silva said. “It’s what we do.”

Rose and Silva attend First United Methodist Church, but there are people from various houses of worship who make up Friends of the Park, the self-styled name for the Sylers’ effort.

Silva said the group has applied for its official nonprofit status and hopes to expand its program of giving away food donated by local churches and individuals.

“It’s giving back,” she said. “We call it the joy factor.”

Before the meal was a short prayer of thanks. But I saw no proselytizing or suggestion that food comes only in exchange for belief, as I’ve seen at some such gatherings.

After, the 30 or so people there took their turn — and there was enough for seconds and to-go packages, by design. For some, it’s the only Sunday meal upon which they can count.

The congregation is come-and-go, but Kennedy said those in the know look forward to every weekend.

“Everyone you talk to, they cannot wait for Sunday to come,” she said.

But the Dr. Powers Park get-together isn’t just about food for the body — it’s about sustenance for the soul.

Paul Hussey Sr., a 53-year-old who has lived in his car with his wife since March, told me the people of Friends of the Park offer more than lunch.

“The people that bring the food, they not only feed us, they listen to our problems, and if they can, they help us out,” he said, leaning on a cane that has helped him since a 2005 stroke.

Hussey said the welcome is a much-needed change of pace from how homeless people are usually treated — with suspicion and derision.

“When (most people) look

at us, they hold their purse very tight,” he said. “That’s not us. We’re not thieves. We’re just tired of being out there on the street, and tired of being judged.”

Longtime Tracy resident Coleen Toon agreed.

She and her boyfriend, Frank Spikes, who aren’t homeless, say the meal helps make ends meet, but that isn’t the best reason for showing up on Sundays.

“You learn everybody’s name, and if they aren’t here you get worried,” Toon said.

In a world that’s often frigid toward the homeless and needy, what I saw that Sunday was an oasis.

The best part is, anyone can add to the warmth.

When asked what Tracy residents can do to help, Silva said, emphatically, “Show up. That’s it. We don’t turn away anything.”

• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by Editor Jon Mendelson. To share your thoughts, email jmendelson@tracypress.com.
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