article written by Elaine Tomski and reprinted with permission by JPV Press
He dozed in a rock-hard feeding trough lined with hay stubble. The night was cool, the stable dark. The pungent odor of manure fragranced the intake of His first breath. The bleat of a lamb, the swish of a cow’s tail and the sweet whisper of a mother touched His ears. His was a lowly birth, that first silent night. It was the night He traded the glory of heaven for the filth of this sinful world. The place is Bethlehem. His name is Jesus. It is the first Christmas.
Move now to 2003. Sue’s father has been gone for seven years and she celebrates Christ’s birth with her widowed 90-year-old mother. The mother who has lovingly made every Christmas season a joyous celebration for family, friends, and neighbors. Sue says, “Mom always began baking cookies the day after Thanksgiving.” She baked dozens and dozens of cookies for the guests who would come through the Thomas’s front door. Once inside, the laughter and music would be just as sweet as her mom’s trays of cookies. Sue says, “Christmas hymns were part of the daily atmosphere of my home and the carols of Christ’s birth were the grand finale at the year’s end.” That Christmas, after friends and neighbors were gone and only the cookie crumbs remained, Sue gently held her dear mother close and shared from her heart, that there could be no Christmas without her. Two short months later, in February of 2004, heaven called Clara Thomas home. Each Christmas to come will have to be celebrated without her. But, how?
Thanksgiving 2004 approached and the question of what to do with Christmas remained unanswered. As the wind blew bitter cold through the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, Sue Thomas walked swiftly with her friend Deb from the theater back to their hotel. On the sidewalk, they discovered a homeless couple cuddled over a steam grate under piles of blankets and newspapers. Sue stopped to give them some bills from her wallet and began to walk away. After a few steps, she stopped again. “Deb, we can’t leave them. We have to get them a room for the night.” So, that night, the couple had a hotel room with a hot shower and a clean, soft bed. The following morning, they enjoyed breakfast with hot coffee. Upon discovering this homeless couple, Sue had found the answer to her question. She realized where she wanted to be on Christmas. “I knew I wanted to be on the streets with the homeless.” This revelation was just the beginning of what would soon become Operation Silent Night.
Every night is a silent night for Sue Thomas. Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, she became profoundly deaf at just 18 months old. Her dedicated parents made certain Sue would have the tools she needed to survive in a world of sound. Years of speech therapy taught Sue to speak even though she heard nothing. The pathway wasn’t easy, but with the help of a high school teacher who recognized Sue’s potential, she made her way to college and a meaningful career. Sue is well known for her professional work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C., where her skillful lip-reading abilities have been used to solve criminal cases. A more recent medical challenge of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) does not discourage Sue’s efforts. She speaks, writes, and keeps right on serving, traveling with the assistance of her service dog, a yellow lab named Sir “Rodney” the Great, and her full-time associate and friend, Deborah Shofstahl.
TRY, TRY AGAIN
The first year of Operation Silent Night (2004), Deb, Sue, and her then service dog, Katie, took hot chocolate and 50 hot sandwiches in a cooler. Deb says, “We gathered up coats and blankets out of the attic and went to the streets of Cleveland on Christmas Eve. When I look back I can see it was God’s protection, having the dog with us.” Some of the homeless were afraid of her. At first, Sue and Deb were having trouble finding people, so at one point, Sue rolled down her window and called out, “Anyone want any hot sandwiches?” Around twenty homeless people came out of nowhere. Sue says, “It was a memorable evening.”
In 2005, the Maynard and Marietta Troyer family began serving with Sue and Deb. For a few years they all served in Cleveland on Christmas Eve. After federal grants began supplying funds for homeless shelters, they found almost no one on the Cleveland streets. Soon they were seeking out the homeless in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but also discovered very few.
Having worked for the FBI, Sue had traveled to our nation’s capital multiple times. It finally occurred to her; “I know where we can find homeless people. They’re all over Washington, D.C., sleeping on the monuments and on the stairs leading to the Capitol building. We’ll go to Washington, D.C.!” So, the next year, that’s what they did. Deb says, “The unique thing about being there at Christmas is that the whole city shuts down. We sort of have the city to ourselves with the homeless.” Thankfully, their fully stocked food truck and bus stuffed with gifts and volunteers have none of the usual traffic worries.
Life is hard for people who have no place to call home. They live with hunger, rejection, and pain. They come from broken homes, they battle addictions and are alienated from their families. Although some are experiencing the consequences of their actions, many are dealing with mental illness. Finding a place to sleep at night begins with standing in line outside the shelter for hours. After the doors are opened and the shelter capacity filled, the rest of the people are turned away to fend for themselves all night. Even when fortunate enough to spend the night in a shelter, everyone is turned out onto the street the next morning to make their way, stay warm, and find food until they must stand in line again. Deb says, “Fixing the problem is not as simple as these people just getting jobs. They are dealing with so many problems, the fix is never easy. We always reach out with the love of Jesus and a smile without judging them.” Sue adds, “They aren’t the forgotten people. We remember them. They’re real people with real stories.”
PERSON TO PERSON
…Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matthew 25:40
According to Deb, “You learn pretty quickly, the number one thing is relationship, so it’s not about giving things away. It’s really about taking the time to make that person feel important.” Sue remembers the first Christmas they gave away comforters. She walked up to a man lying on the ground and said, “Sir, I have a gift made especially for you. It’s our hope that it will keep you warm.” When he looked up at her she asked, “Sir, may I tuck you in for the night?” He smiled. She placed the comforter over him, tucked it under his feet and thought to herself This is the best Christmas I’ve ever experienced…my entire life! She shared the love of Christ as she tucked in a stranger that night.
Maynard recalls a cold, rainy Christmas Eve they found someone lying over a grate for warmth. There were two feet sticking out from under blankets and an umbrella. It was heart-wrenching to discover this cold, drenched, homeless person to be a girl about the same age as his own girls. He says, “That touched me deeply. Then, it was like God supplied specifically for her because we had one pair of coveralls and one pair of boots that fit her exactly.” He recognizes God’s provision every year saying, “We don’t preach at people, but God always opens doors so we can pray with people. It’s such a blessing to just go love on them. Feed them. Be their friend for the day.”
Deb remembers a year they found it difficult to leave the warm bus. It was only 12 degrees and windy. “There was a pile of blankets next to a lamppost, so we stopped.” They found a young woman in her 30’s who hadn’t made it into a shelter, so she made her bed right there. “What struck me was, right above her head tucked into a brick, there was a Christmas card. She had built a little bedroom, under the light, with a Christmas card over her head, in 12-degree weather.” The strangest thing is that this sweet homeless gal kept questioning the volunteers, “What are you doing out on a night like this?” Deb says, “That year, ladies had made neck pillows to give away.” How grateful this homeless lady was to receive a pillow for her head.
Marietta enjoys connecting with her small Asian friend Lulu each Christmas. “She’s always a highlight!” Two years ago, Lulu shared that she was battling cancer. While living on the streets, she was also receiving chemo treatments. Concerned about her chance for survival, Lulu confided, “I don’t think I’ll be seeing you next year.” Marietta says, “But sure enough, last year, there she was! She looked so good!” Maynard adds, “We have our regulars that we know down there.”
Another favorite regular is Big Ron. “I look like a dwarf next to him,” Maynard says, as he recalls a Christmas Eve they were having trouble finding people. Typically, the bus stays away from a park known to be filled with unpredictable drug users, but this year they pulled close in order to find the homeless. Maynard says, “We left the bus and just got mobbed there. I was trapped against the side of the bus unable to move. Marietta was in the bus doorway passing out gifts to the street folks and they were grabbing for stuff. All of a sudden this big black guy walked up and hollered, ‘If you want something you get in single file and no grabbing! If you get caught grabbing, you will have to get out of line and you will not get anything!’” Big Ron is their unofficial security guard. It seems he’s pretty good at crowd control. He’s good at giving hugs, too. Big Ron always comes onto the bus to give Sue a big old smelly hug and calls her “Mom.” Sue loves those hugs and reports they have around eight regulars whom they see every year.
One Christmas morning, there were socks and gloves left over from Christmas Eve, so back out to the streets they went. Deb approached a man to give him a pair of socks. She discovered he was a Vietnam veteran who had been released from the VA Hospital just two days earlier following foot surgery. He was quite happy with the sock booties the hospital had supplied, and she says, “I had to convince him he could have more than one pair of socks. He was as sweet and pleasant as could be.” How sad to be released from the hospital with no place to go.
The first challenge volunteers encounter on Christmas Eve is in finding the homeless. It can be a bit like hide-and-seek. They find them in dark alleys and dumpsters. They seek out piles of newspapers and cardboard boxes. The people are hiding for warmth and safety. Because they are often rejected, homeless people are very cautious. They might even refuse the offered gifts because they find it difficult to trust. Maynard says it helps if you learn to talk their lingo. Sometimes, a homeless person will receive a gift from one of the Troyer children when they don’t trust the adults. If they refuse to accept a gift from the volunteers or even the children, Marietta says, “They always accept it from Sue.”
You may be wondering what kind of gifts Operation Silent Night brings. For the past three years they have given out backpacks filled with survival items for winter, such as toilet paper, toothbrush, toothpaste, heavy socks, gloves, hats, scarves or ponchos. The backpack is easy to carry and can serve as a pillow for their heads. Sue says about the gifting, “Each year we’ve been able to add a new item we wouldn’t even have imagined.” Last year some ladies crocheted plastic shopping bags into mats. They are waterproof and perfectly provide cushion and insulation from the cold, hard ground.
Marietta takes care of organizing the bus a local church lends them for the holiday. The back half is loaded from floor to ceiling with backpacks for men and women, coats, shoes and boots, extra socks, Bibles, tarps, flashlights, crocheted plastic mats, Amish-made comforters and miscellaneous items. The food truck, owned by Operation Silent Night, carries 225 hot sandwiches, hot chocolate, cookies, and goody bags filled with cans of Pepsi, bottles of water, trail mix, applesauce, potato chips, beef jerky and all kinds of snacks. The challenge comes when volunteers are faced with how to be both efficient and helpful. As they give a sandwich, hot chocolate, cookies, goody bags, blankets and backpacks, the homeless people run out of hands! Isn’t that a wonderful problem? Serving 175-200 people every year, Deb says, “We don’t want to treat people in assembly-line fashion. We want to treat each person as an individual.” New for this Christmas will be duffle bags, even larger than backpacks, to hold more gifts for giving.
A challenge for both Operation Silent Night and the homeless person is obtaining shoes and boots. Too often, homeless people receive cheap shoes or flip-flops, but what they need are warm winter boots and good quality shoes able to survive harsh weather and constant wear. Volunteers never have enough to give away. They need men’s boots of all sizes and women’s boots in large sizes. Even rubber boots to keep feet dry are welcomed.
Every year, Sue gathers all kinds of free items. She doesn’t let the physical limits of MS keep her from making yearly visits to Giant Eagle, Arby’s Chick-fila, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, and Sam’s Club. Marietta says she’s even heard a Sam’s Club manager tell the employee assisting Sue, “Just give her whatever she wants.” Walnut Creek Cheese donates the ham and cheese for hot sandwiches. Arby’s donates hot sandwiches, too. And what would Christmas Eve be without cookies? Just like Clara Thomas, Der Dutchman provides dozens and dozens of cookies for the event.
Vendors from Ruby’s Country Store in Winesburg, Ohio, have been known to donate boxes full of hats and gloves. Kind Amish ladies from Meadville, PA, make beautiful single bed comforters in dark and bright colors, perfect for not showing the dingy wear of street-life. They also make pillows for weary heads. Having a comforter and pillow brings a feeling of home to folks without a home. Maynard and Marietta’s children purchase a special gift each year. They watch and pray while making their way through the streets. Every year God shows them the exact person who needs the gift they have to give.
Sue says, “I know a man from years ago. He had a mental disorder and got his life back together after four years of being homeless. Now, each Christmas he sends a donation of $35 for one item only…Jolly Ranchers hard candy. He has taught us from his own experience, the best way to approach and make friends is with a piece of hard candy.” Sue is grateful for his first-hand knowledge and generosity.
Now that it has become more difficult for Sue to walk, she takes the opportunity to sit in the front seat of the bus to encourage the people and hand them one last gift. She tells them, “I want you to have another meal this week or next week. Here’s a gift card so you can get food or hot coffee.” She loves giving out fast food gift cards and receiving genuine hugs. Marietta says, “They really connect with her.” Sue says, “Once you see that look of gratitude from someone who has nothing, you never forget it.” Maynard says it this way, “We’re always more blessed than the people we serve. Some of what you see is etched into your heart.”
That’s how it will be again this Christmas when Sue, Deb, and their volunteer family will be on the streets of our nation’s capital, blessing homeless people with the love of Jesus. Now, 13 years after Sue believed she could never celebrate Christmas again, Operation Silent Night moves into Washington, D.C. every Christmas Eve because of what she learned from the servant heart of her mother. The greatest gift is truly found in giving.
“Operation Silent Night just keeps getting bigger and better,” says Sue. Always a visionary, she’s dreaming of a warehouse. Marietta agrees and would also welcome a bigger bus. They collect donations right up until the morning of December 23. Currently, their greatest needs are:
• Funds for purchasing meal cards
• Boots and shoes
On that first silent night, He came to make peace between God and man. He came to take our sin and give us His holiness. He came to make us right with God again. He did it for you and me. He did it for the homeless people sleeping on rock hard concrete in cold, dark places, where filth breeds. He offers us all a dignity we will never deserve. His name is Jesus. The place is your heart.
To learn how you can help please go to www.suethomasministries.org