“This is just heart right here,” volunteer Larry Hepler would say later, standing in the same grass at City Island Park where hundreds of people gathered Saturday for an early Thanksgiving meal. “He just has a real heart to serve people and do whatever he can to help them.”
The “he” Hepler was talking about is Jim Brissey, the DeLand pastor who put together Saturday’s feast, the fifth one in the 12 years since Brissey and his wife Jean started Higher Ground Ministries.
Brissey calls his event a “unique coming-together” of churches from all over Florida (and across state lines) — 65 of them, from 23 different cities, sent members to Daytona Beach to help out.
“It’s a celebration, and everyone’s invited,” Brissey said. “We have folks that live in mansions, and folks that live in a mission. It’s one of those kind of events.”
All told, the group cooked about 1,200 hamburgers, 1,400 hot dogs and served 120 pounds of potato salad, all of it free to anyone who came hungry. Other volunteers handed out free clothes to people who needed them. A barber plugged in his clippers and started giving free haircuts.
“A lot of the servants that are behind the scenes have come a long distance and sacrificed a great deal of time and resources to get here,” Brissey said as smoke poured out of the crowd gathering around the barbecue grill. “Just to see the joy that they have in serving has been a tremendous blessing.”
Out of habit, most of the hungry people lined up at the grill to get their meals. Brissey, when he saw the line growing, took a microphone and asked everyone to have a seat while the many church volunteers brought food to them.
“It helps the people that live out here on the streets,” said Kathy Atchley, who came for the afternoon without her fiance, who got some work as a day laborer. “I used to be out here on the streets. So it just helps everybody, especially when they feed. There aren’t too many people that feed the homeless around here.”
Atchley was one of many people who won small raffle prizes — in her case, about $15 in McDonald’s vouchers — just for attending.
“This is what it’s all about,” said Ken Fortner, a member of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in DeLand who was helping people sort through donated clothing. “My feeling is if the government would just get out of the way, a lot of the time, and just let people step up and help each other, we would do it. And we do.”
The Brisseys and their Higher Ground Ministries came to DeLand in 1999. The first event like this was in 2000, but the magnitude has grown since then.
Before he started in ministry, Brissey worked for a PBS station in Tampa, where he said he “had a wonderful job, enjoyed what I was doing, but I just really felt God’s tug on my heart to go into ministry and share the good news of the gospel.”
“So we’ve been doing this, and doing different types of outreach — whether it’s prisons, or children’s homes, or nursing homes — it’s kind of our heart’s cry,” Brissey said. “It’s what God has really called us to.”
Daytona Beach police did get a complaint about the event Saturday — the city has an ordinance against public feedings of the homeless. A similar ordinance in Orlando resulted in a few arrests of “Food Not Bombs” volunteers earlier this year. Police Chief Mike Chitwood stopped by the park, though, and said the group wasn’t in violation because it was holding a broader event.
Sam King, a 53-year-old man who said he’s been living in the woods of Port Orange for the past three years, was grateful for what the group gave him.
“I tell a lot of people out here who are homeless that they need to take a look around and see people that are worse off than they are,” he said. “When people say they’re real down and out, you can always say, ‘Look around, man, look at some of these people that are way worse off than you are. Thank God for what you’ve got, man.’ “