Easter’s ‘He Got Up’ plans massive service for poor

Orlando Sentinel

Organizers say Easter’s “He Got Up” celebration at the Citrus Bowl on March 27 will be the largest service event and resource fair ever held in the United States, drawing at least 25,000 homeless and impoverished people for food, help and inspiration.

Pastor Tim Johnson, the man who created it, says it’s merely what Jesus would do.

“I feel like Jesus is pleased,” says Johnson — senior pastor of Orlando World Outreach Center, president of the nonprofit Orlando Serve Foundation and former stand-out NFL defensive lineman. “I honestly believe that if Jesus were living in Orlando today, this is what he would be doing — bringing the word of resurrection of the soul through Christ and resurrection of the person through opportunity.”

If his talk is lofty, his plans are loftier: free food, entertainment, showers, haircuts, medical screenings, eye exams, legal information, help applying for government aid, resources for veterans, a job fair and entertainment for the kids.

And, of course, an Easter service — not that it’s just for Christians. Johnson says people of all faiths, or no faith, are welcome too.

As preparations enter the home stretch, volunteers have been dispatched throughout Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties in recent weeks to register participants and find out their needs.

Deshunda Lindsay, a Sanford mother of two school-aged girls, was among those who signed up. At 43, the divorced former nurse has struggled to keep a roof over her head — and not always succeeded.

“I’ve slept on people’s couches, in parking lots, in my car when I had one,” she says.

Home is now a two-bedroom rental with no heat, broken pipes, a ceiling that has partially collapsed and mildewed carpet. She has no job, poorly controlled diabetes and difficulty walking.

“What do I expect at the event?” she says. “I have no idea. Something. Anything. But at least it will get the kids out of the house, and even if it’s not a turning point for me, it might be for someone else.”

So far, the numbers have not approached the high expectations — just 5,000 people have signed up to participate. But spokeswoman Vicki Johnson (no relation to the pastor) notes that registration is not mandatory and says a big push in the final days should increase numbers dramatically.

The Orlando Serve Foundation, the nonprofit organizing the event, also needs more volunteers and money. To date, about 2,500 people have signed up to help, and donors have contributed about $400,000 — plus $600,000 to $700,000 worth of services and products. But Tim Johnson said he would like to bring in another $150,000 in cash donations to provide more for the guests.

But some are concerned such funds might be better spent.

Robert Brown, president and CEO of the Heart of Florida United Way, says he was approached by organizers to participate but declined.

“We have funding priorities, and this kind of an event — with free haircuts and food and music — just doesn’t fit in,” Brown says. “The United Way just feels the money could be used for better things, like housing.”

Already, logistics are massive: Free shuttle bus service for He Got Up will start from 44 locations throughout the tri-county region at 6:30 that morning and run until 9 a.m., the official start time for the event itself. Return buses will run from shortly before noon to 6 p.m.

Participants will be greeted at a “VIP” area, where they’ll be given a beverage, a hygiene kit from the Orlando nonprofit Clean the World and the opportunity to choose “gently used” clothing.

From there, the kids will head to a supervised recreation area for games, activities and entertainment while adults can take a shower, get a haircut, learn CPR or sign up for food stamps, Medicaid or health insurance through Obamacare. They also can learn how to manage chronic health conditions, attend a job fair or get screening to resolve legal problems.

Starbucks and Hilton Grand Vacations have pledged to hire workers at the event, Vicki Johnson said.

And Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Frederick Lauten has agreed to hold a special court session May 20 to try to resolve outstanding cases and fines for residents in his jurisdiction.

“We don’t really know the scope of it yet,” Lauten said, “but we want to do whatever we can to help. If someone has an outstanding felony warrant, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to do much. But if we’re talking about outstanding court costs, there’s a much better chance.”

For those who qualify financially, he noted, court costs can be dropped in exchange for charitable service.

Lauten, like many, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude on his expectations for the Easter event itself. So has Andrae Bailey, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.

“I’m a huge fan of Pastor Tim and I believe in his leadership,” Bailey says. “So even if he’s going down roads that make some people nervous, I know he is stepping out in faith, and he’s trying to do something that we’ve never done before.”