Sonia Edmonds has her feet washed by Gail Anderson.
Elli Bloomberg

Hundreds of people gathered in Franklin Square Park on the morning of Saturday, September 10 for prayer, entertainment, food and clothing. Children posed with Mickey and Minnie Mouse as they waited in line to have their faces painted. Adultsd sifted through stacks of clothing donations including socks, flannel shirts, business-casual blouses, puffy winter jackets, stylish peacoats and patterned children’s pants. Smooth jazz, courtesy of a band from Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, blanketed the crowd. Under an awning, volunteers readied buckets of soapy water for a foot-washing ceremony.

This was the sense of community that Don Gardner, who organized the gathering, set out to create. Gardner, recent founder of the nonprofit Real Love Ministry and a former Street Sense vendor, wanted to provide entertainment and spiritual fulfillment as well as food and clothing.

“When you spend all day with [people experiencing homelessness], there’s a difference,” Gardner said. “When you come out here, pass out food and clothes and then leave…they’re used to that. I’ve been out here, I’ve watched it. It helps for a minute; it’s like a Band-Aid. But they need heart surgery. They need brain surgery. People are hurting here.”

Gardner knew this pain from personal experience. When he was released from prison in 2006, he headed to the Franklin School, a now-shuttered shelter across 13th Street NW on the east side of Franklin Square. Driven out by unsanitary conditions and poor treatment, he spent his nights in the park.

“State troopers used to run us out of this park,” Gardner recalled. He said it was especially hard holding down a job while trying to bathe and get enough sleep. “The Lord brought me back here. I thank God for using me as a vessel.”

To Gardner, nothing shows humility and love more than his chosen theme: “Washing of the Feet.” In the Bible, he explained, Christ washed his disciples’ feet before he was crucified. This symbolized leadership and service,

“When you wash somebody’s feet, they know that you care. That’s why so many people were drawn to that tent,” Gardner said.

Bobbie Roseboro, who came with a friend and both of their daughters, said she was uplifted by the prayer, music and foot-washing. She didn’t come for the food and clothing, she said, but she was glad they were there.

Clayton Scott volunteered at the event “not just to give [people] a shirt or a meal, but to give them God’s word.” Scott, who became friends with Gardner at Central Union Mission, said he was homeless and struggling with addiction for ten years before he found religion. Eighteen years later, his youngest son is about to start college.

“I’m living proof that if you trust the Lord, he will give you your due,” Scott said.

The gathering was co-hosted by Gardner’s nonprofit and his church, Metropolitan AME. He began making concrete plans six months ago, though he had been thinking about it for over a year. He brought the idea to his pastor at Metropolitan AME, who encouraged him to join forces with Mighty Men of Metropolitan, the church’s men’s ministry. The group obtained money and clothing from Merryl Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, The Tower Companies, and a few K Street law firms. Gardner’s friends and family also donated. Altogether, he said, they raised over $12,000.

This paid for more than enough clothing, shoes and school supplies for everyone who needed them. Gardner estimated that between 400 and 500 people came throughout the day. There were even a few bins of children’s undergarments left over, which Gardner passed out at housing projects.

The donations also funded the stage for the jazz band, professional videographers, the costumed characters and the face-painter.

The event coincided with a bi-monthly food and clothing giveaway organized by The Widow’s Pantry, a local nonprofit. They received enough donations for at least 200 people, according to Founder and Executive Director Keena M. Trapps.

Gardner recruited local hip-hop artist Johnaa Flemming to perform in the afternoon. Flemming’s six-year-old daughter, Mia, also performed. Attendees and videographers filmed her as she sang along to Trip Lee’s “Sweet Victory.”

“This is the first time I’ve been to one of these events, and I thank God I came,” Flemming said. “When you’re at an event like this where you come to help people less fortunate, it just humbles you…In today’s economy, any one of us could be put here. The line is this thin…so we’ve gotta help each other.”