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Shining Lights

The Homeless as Guests of Honor

Operation Care International cares for 245,000 homeless and impoverished children and adults

In September 1993, Susie Y. Jennings, R.N., founder and president of the homeless ministry Operation Care International, stood in her Dallas kitchen baking a cake. Just five months before she had found her husband’s body in the woods in Oklahoma where he had taken his own life. Three months afterwards, Jennings got into a car accident and could not walk for 60 days. She was making dessert to celebrate her full recovery with friends—a bit of light in the midst of her grief. While baking a cake, Susie’s neighbor shot himself through the heart just 30 feet from where she was standing in her kitchen.

“Two suicides in five months. I got mad at God,” Jennings said. “Then I had a dream, and in my dream, I was knocking on doors, telling people about Jesus. When I woke up, I said, “OK, God, what can I do for you?” Three weeks later, she was driving home from church when she was impressed to help the homeless. She laughs as she recalls her initial response: “No, not me! I cannot stand homeless people.”

“I didn’t like them because while growing up, they ate my food and occupied my space in my mother’s kitchen,” Jennings said. “I did not know that the Lord would call me to a ministry I did not want and people I did not like—the homeless. Actually, the Lord trained me in my mother’s kitchen to have compassion on the homeless. It was a full circle experience.”

Jennings said in her life-altering conversation with God following her neighbor’s suicide, she asked what she could take to this very needy group of people. One word came to mind: “Blankets.”

Within 24 hours Susie was back at work and asked doctors and nurses for $5 to buy a blanket. “I became the blanket lady of Dallas,” she said. According to a 2021 report by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the current homeless count in Dallas is nearing 5,000. “I would carry blankets in the trunk of my car and give them out. I did that for eight years with the help of my widowed mother.”

In 2004, Jennings officially launched the nonprofit Operation Care International and her work quickly extended beyond giving blankets to hosting birthday bashes. Jennings’ vision of throwing a big party to celebrate the birth of Jesus and inviting the homeless as guests of honor turned into what is now the biggest Christmas party in the nation for the homeless and impoverished.

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“We called all the poor and destitute—all outcasts—to come to the Convention Center of Dallas and to hear the Gospel and have their feet washed, to put on clean socks and shoes, to get haircuts, toiletries, sleeping bags, medical help, food, and to make phone calls,” Jennings said, adding that the homeless guests were also given free legal help and opportunities to be connected with jobs. “For children, we have ziplines, pony rides, rock wall climbing and a petting zoo, coats, shoes, and amazing toys.”

That first year in 2004, about 10,000 people attended Jesus’ birthday party: 8,500 homeless and impoverished people with 1,500 volunteers. The event was such a success it became annual. The number of attendees doubled with now 20,000 homeless and impoverished cared for each year.

In 2008, Operation Care became an international ministry. Last year, in the midst of COVID-19, the event continued, and 46 countries joined the ranks: Italy, Congo, Sierra Leone, Nepal, India, China, Cuba, North, Uganda, Israel, and more. “No pandemic could stop Jesus’ birthday,” Jennings said.

Operation Care International’s team is currently prepping for their biggest event, anticipating 35 states and 150 countries to participate in this year’s Christmas party. Jenning’s is dubbing this event a ONEDAY MOVEMENT slated for Dec. 18, 2021.

“Jesus told the story of a rich man who told his servant to go call the lame and the poor because the rich will not come to my party,” Jennings said. “Just think of this! One day that unites the entire world for Christ.”

Operation Care International is run completely off donations, Jennings said. Since its launch in 2004, Operation Care has aided 245,000 homeless and impoverished children, men, and women. Last year, the team at Operation Care raised $365,000 for 46 countries and gave nine U.S. states $10,000 each to fund their Christmas parties. The parties are run completely by volunteers; the Dallas team has tallied in at 3,700 volunteers from 300 churches, Jennings said.

Jennings just finished her second book, “No, Not Me!” She wrote the book by hand, word for word in a notebook. “I pay someone to transcribe my book. I don’t even know how to use a laptop,” she laughed.

As she reflects on her story, Jennings said she comes back to her mother’s table. “Our house was a refuge,” Jenning said. “That is how the story became beautiful because I did not like the homeless, not knowing that I would reach people I didn’t even want to. If God could change my heart, He could change anybody’s heart. It is not about me and Operation Care—it is all about Jesus. I am so excited to be part of God’s vision.”