At one point on Saturday, I watched the McLennan County District Attorney sit and talk with an individual about his son’s case for some twenty minutes. That was only one of many moments that I found to be genuinely remarkable. The whole day was one that I suspect I shall remember for a long time to come—even though my current state of exhaustion has covered it with a layer of haze.
I had invited the District Attorney earlier in the week, as I had the Mayor and the City Council and others in our city’s leadership. He spent over two and a half hours there, sitting and talking with families and with people from our church. He listened to their complaints, and frustrations at having their loved ones in jail for so long. And he wrote down names, and told families he would have his staff look into their cases. At the end of the day, he thanked me—and said next year he’d encourage his whole staff to come. I don’t know how often families have the chance to sit and talk while eating barbecue with the representative of the city who is accusing their loved one of a crime—but it happened on Saturday, and it was something special to watch.
I’ll remember the kids, too. Because there were a lot of them, and they seemed to be everywhere. At one point, one of my volunteers was seated at a table with a full table of children around him. He was handing out balloon animals—and teaching them how to make them. As he joked later, he went from apprentice to master craftsman with a whole school of pupils in the span of an hour.
And there were almost no cell phones out. That was perhaps the strangest thing of all. When my wife had to leave, she went to order her Lyft (as we are a one car family)—and actually went into the parking lot to do it, so out of place she felt looking at her phone. We served over 450 meals this year—to probably over 250 people. I’m sure in there people snuck a pea at their phone. I know I did. But that was an anomaly. It genuinely felt as though many of us had forgotten the outside world, so engrossing was the business at hand.
That is, I think, largely because people really stayed this year and had real conversations. There was probably an hour long stretch were every table was full of people eating barbecue and talking. This year it didn’t seem like we were ‘serving our neighbour’ or ‘raising awareness’ or anything like that. Instead, all of that seemed to fall away—as we ate barbecue together, and talked about the world.
The weather helped immensely with that, of course. It was the exact inverse of last year, in fact. In 2018, the weather was beautiful all week—until an extremely cold and windy front moved in on Friday at five pm, just before the BBQ was to happen. This year? On Friday at 5 PM there were thunderstorms and winds, all of which cleared away by 9 AM. It’s a lot easier to stay and talk when you’re not freezing. And this year, well, it was almost a little too warm and humid!
Stuffed animals helped, too. There’s a palpable skepticism toward us among those that visit the jail, which is entirely understandable. Some people seem to have a real sense of shame—but mainly, folks want to go about their unpleasant business and not be bothered. We did all we could to persuade people to join us—but it seemed like nearly everyone with kids did. After all, we had people stationed around the visitation center inviting them to barbecue holding stuffed animals—that the Salvation Army gave away for free. When they showed up, they told me they had 200 stuffed animals that they weren’t going home with. We probably gave away 180 of them. Children led the way—and parents followed. The Salvation Army bought us a trust that I suspect we could not have on our own. I’m indebted to them immensely; they were about as impressive as you can imagine. Throw a few dollars in their can this next Christmas, and think of me and of their kindness in Waco.
There’s much more that can and should be said about yesterday. No, it wasn’t perfect. There is much more we can do to gain trust within that community, and much more I’d like to do. But it was a good work, one I’m honored to have been a part of.