Helping those in need when it really counts

Gloria Bracy, a volunteer who is an organist at Bethel Presbyterian Church in North Philadelphia, performs at the annual Christmas Day Breakfast at Arch Street United Methodist Church.
Gloria Bracy, a volunteer who is an organist at Bethel Presbyterian Church in North Philadelphia, performs at the annual Christmas Day Breakfast at Arch Street United Methodist Church.
Posted: December 26, 2010

In the kitchen, Patricia Taylor was managing a crew of 20 cooking massive quantities of eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, and grits.

In the dining hall, Taylor's son-in-law, Michael Cannon, was doling out Danish to volunteers serving the tables.

And running around as he ran the whole operation was Taylor's son, Steven Whaley, head of United Methodist Men of Arch Street United Methodist Church and organizer of the annual Christmas Day Breakfast for the city's homeless.

In 2004, Arch Street United Methodist took over the duty of serving the Christmas breakfast from the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness. But to Taylor's kin and the other 150 volunteers, joy would be a better word to describe their work.

The volunteers rose before dawn to fill this church in the shadow of City Hall with the smells of food and the spirit of holiday giving. Each table was set with cloths, utensils, carafes of coffee, and boxes of orange juice, and adorned with a Christmas-tree centerpiece. A volunteer played hymns and carols on a piano.

"All the love and all the blessings we have, we want to give them to everybody else," Whaley told a group of servers before they started.

"We treat them just like it's a high-end restaurant," said Whaley, 54, a maintenance supervisor at a Center City high-rise. "We wait on them hand and feet. That's our whole object: to make them feel wanted and loved and respected."

The volunteers served multiple seatings at just 10 tables this year to make each guest comfortable, the Rev. Robin Hynicka explained. Left unsaid was another benefit of the roominess: space for guests who arrive with all their belongings in backpacks or plastic bags. Some come from area shelters and others directly from the streets.

The guests sat down to a generous hot meal - a welcome change for those such as Albert Bronson, 61, who has slept for 31/2 months at a city shelter on Ridge Avenue near Broad Street.

At the shelter, Christmas breakfast was oatmeal, bread, and milk, which Bronson said made the food at Arch Street United Methodist feel like a feast.

"Hot coffee? And orange juice? Oh, man, I feel good inside. It's a wonderful thing they do here," he said.

Bronson has been homeless since losing his last job in September as an auto mechanic. He could not collect jobless benefits, he said, because he was paid off the books. He said he had lost his last full-time job, reading water meters in Camden, after the utility switched to radio-operated meters in 2007.

"Automation," he said. "What can I say?"

Some volunteers were plainly mindful of the thin line separating the well-fed and comfortable from their Christmas guests.

As he served Danish, Cannon, of New Castle, Del., recalled spending a year on the streets in the early 1970s while he struggled with a drug problem. He turned his life around with the help of a rehab facility in Eagleville, the Salvation Army in Delaware, and the support of a caring wife, Denise Whaley Cannon, who on Saturday was serving the homeless with Whaley, her brother, and Taylor, her mother.

Work as a floor finisher has been scarce lately for Cannon, 61. But his wife has a steady job as a bus driver for the Christina School District in Delaware, and her frugality has kept the family afloat.

"She helped me learn to save," Cannon said. "Her whole family is about caring and giving."

Taylor, the matriarch, who also cooks weekly at a shelter for homeless women with mental illness, is familiar with wealth as well as poverty. For 20 years, she commuted to New York to work in designer evening-wear sales at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Now 76, she lives with her cats in Upper Darby, upstairs from another son, and devotes her life to service work. Philadelphia Magazine honored her three years ago in a piece subtitled, "Some Philly faces you'll see in Heaven - assuming you make it."

"It's just something I feel that I'm supposed to be doing," Taylor said. "And it keeps me busy, instead of just sitting around and going to the movies. I just like doing for others."

Taylor's attitude was shared widely by the Christmas volunteers, who came from the city and suburbs.

And then there was Tim Finneron, 60, of Agua Dulce, Calif., a corporate jet pilot on a holiday layover. He happened onto the church's Christmas Eve services, heard about the breakfast, and decided to volunteer. He said he hoped to do it again - if closer to home.

"It's very humbling," Finneron said. "It also points out how lucky we are."

To Whaley, the only sorrow is that for the down-and-out, the feeling that other people care can be all too fleeting.

"They should feel like that every day of the year," he said.


Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles

at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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