It was 5:45, and the sun was setting over downtown Durham in a purplish orange palette. It was Thanksgiving.
Nearly all the lights in a normally non-stop Police Department headquarters were extinguished.
Right across the road, the same. Just the one beam from a second-floor window over the side door of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.
It’s a huge structure. That evening, the place was a cavern of compassion.
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I rang the doorbell and in moments I was sitting in the church dining area, clustered at a table with a family of six I’d just met. All the Thanksgiving meal trimmings sat before us.
“Lemonade?” someone quickly asked.
“Love some,” I answered.
The family, for that night and that week, called Duke Memorial UMC home. That’s right, Yvette, Jamal and their children were living there.
These days, were it not for this church, more than a dozen other churches in Durham, and the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network (DIHN), shelter and food would be exceptionally hard to come by.
Yvette and Jamal’s kids are Malachai, age 16, Madison, 9, Tuesday, 6, and Linda, 7. Every once in while during the meal, the girls got up and danced around, looking like three ballerinas with their long legs. Even with turkey in their tummies.
The adults and Malachai, who goes to Hillside New Tech now, chatted while focusing on the great food and dessert. Apple pie. Pumpkin pie. Perfect.
The families stay in one church for a week, and then move to another and another, for 90 days. The mission is to get them settled and back on their feet, and hopefully get them into their own home somewhere.
There’s roughly a 75 percent success rate.
Roger Loyd of Duke Memorial UMC and a cadre of other volunteers put these church homes together.
“I like to call it a bridge over troubled waters,” Loyd said.
It’s a legendary song, of course, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” by Simon and Garfunkel.
DIHN executive director Catherine Pleil underscored things. “What does a home mean to these folks?” she wrote. “A home means stability for all of us.”
Yvette told me, “They put their feet into it, all of them.”
I didn’t understand.
“They give it everything they’ve got,” she explained.
Malachai: “I can’t believe it, really. We’ve got a bunch of families now.”
For the week, he slept with his five loved ones in a room another floor up, made up to be cozy and private. They sleep in rollaway beds transported from church to church.
Yvette said, “Even with all our struggles, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a homeless person. We’re not homeless. We’re working our way back to places we’ve been before.”
Jamal has been working the last few weeks for a cargo company; he’s also spent time driving big trucks in North Dakota, and may go back in a few weeks.
Yvette says she’s ready to get back to work now, too, now that the girls are in elementary school. “W.G. Pearson,” Tuesday told me.
Leta Loyd, Roger’s spouse, and Greg Palmer of Watts Street Baptist were also at the Thanksgiving table.
Palmer said, “It’s something we should all do. That’s how I look at it.”
Roger Loyd, who’s a retired Duke librarian, said: “The kids, they bear no responsibility for these tough times. I do it to give them the best chance.”
Since 1994, DIHN reports that it’s arranged for 65,000 nights for families in need, and served them nearly 150,000 meals.
Back at the church, it was only 7:15 but seemed later.
We all cleared the table. Leta Loyd got the dishwasher going.
The small girls suddenly stood before me, staring up. I leaned over and gave bear hugs to the brave children.
“Bye, reporter,” the girls said in rhythm.
“You better stay in touch,” Yvette added as I headed for the door.
Jamal waved from the balcony of Duke Memorial UMC. He was out getting some air.
A respite for 90 days and nights. Thanks to scores of people in Durham who reach out and hold some hands.
In a bit, that lone dining hall light would dim. And a family would soon sleep.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-219-0042.