Intro: This week I am featuring an interview with Dalla O’Day on outreach to homeless people. I’ve known Dalla for over a decade and her contagious love for people exemplifies the type of love Christ calls the church to uphold.
Dalla graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Discipleship in 2005 and has served with several church and parachurch homeless ministries. Currently, she volunteers in her church band and missions committee, and is about to embark on leadership for her church in the areas of education/training for evangelism in practical life circumstances. In addition, she corresponds with prison inmates who have spiritual questions.
As a college student, you started a rather unique ministry, “Flowers for Jesus.” Would you briefly describe what it is and what inspired you to start this outreach?
Flowers for Jesus began one Saturday night in October 2002. Well, I should say it started a few days before that when I purchased some flowers to enjoy as a remembrance of Christ's love to me and mine to Him. I remember as I was leaving that Saturday morning to go into the then "ghetto" of Chicago, Cabrini-Green, that I offered a "throw away" prayer about the flowers: "Jesus, I wish they would do something, instead of just sitting there."
I went on to work in Cabrini-Green with the kids that morning, and didn't give the flowers another thought. It was my first time with the group, but I had come at the invitation from the group's team leader and knew that he thought there was someone I should meet. He introduced us, and as the morning wore on, I saw why. Elizabeth was an odd duck, like me, with a big imagination and a passion for Jesus. I wound up telling her about my flowers and my wish for them to do more than just look pretty.
Without a moment's pause, Elizabeth said, "I would give them to homeless people."
I stared back for a moment, contemplating what this could mean or look like. Within five minutes, we had made plans to ask one of the guys we knew to go with us that very night. The three of us took out those flowers and offered them to people on the streets as a sign of God's love for everyone, specifically them.
Interestingly enough, the women we offered them to usually rejected, but the men gladly accepted the little token of God's love, gave us hearty handshakes and thanked us profusely for reminding them that someone cares. Eventually we were able to partner with other ministries who had been able to receive donations of clothing and various foods, and we continued taking out flowers each week, accompanied by hot cocoa, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and whatever donations the other group had been given that week.
What have been some of your favorite memories while leading Flowers for Jesus?
There was a woman named Bonnie that we met on our very first night out there. We tried talking with her, offered her a flower (which she did take) and tried to see how we could love her, but she just yelled and snapped at us and screamed at the top her lungs to "get away!" from her.
Over the three years out there, Bonnie was loved by other followers of Christ as well, and by the end of the three years there, Bonnie had not only come to Christ as Savior, but she and I were having weekly Bible studies. As a group of friends and I returned on foot to Moody after our final Junior/Senior banquet as students, we came across Bonnie and got to chat with her for a while. She loved that we wanted to talk to her while we were all dressed up, and wanted her picture taken with a friend and me. A week later or two later, I went out, for the last time, on Flowers for Jesus, and Bonnie was the last person to ever receive a flower from us. It was a beautiful culmination and regular reminder since then, of how much God loves everyone, and how much He delights in His children loving others!
Another series of fond memories I have involves carriage companies. Before Moody, I briefly worked as the manager of a horse drawn carriage company in Pennsylvania. So when I saw the various carriages out in the cold winter nights, we stopped in with them any night we had leftover flowers, hot cocoa, food, etc., and would chat with the drivers. Many of them are poor immigrants who have been overlooked by others, treated like servants or ignored at job interviews for jobs they were highly qualified for, because they were different or had "funny accents." Since I had been out there, myself, on blustery days and uncomfortable nights, I had an instant bond with them.
Well, except with Fred, the manager of this particular company. He was a cold, unhappy man from Poland, who seemed to derive great pleasure from yelling at college students. By the end of the three years, however, he had not only started giving me free carriage rides any time he saw me with a new guy on the ministry (apparently, he was trying to help me get a date), but he told me, "You Moody students are the only people that are actually decent human beings. I don't understand your religion, but I do like your attitude toward people. Thank you."
He gave me a giant bear hug, one last free carriage ride, and told me he would miss me now that I was graduating. A year and a half later, when I was in town visiting, I got to see Fred again, and he was so delighted to see me that he hugged me for probably a solid minute.
Note: Stay tuned! Wednesday, we'll discuss how ministry to the homeless impacted Dalla's spiritual life, and then on Friday we'll hear some tips for homeless ministry!