Even before her son was killed, Beverly Williams made the lively Share the Spirit holiday party at Downs Memorial United Methodist Church part of her Christmas.
There was the fellowship with others who gather once a year in the church's community hall to eat, sing and praise.
There was also the reality that, even with a full-time job, it was hard to make ends meet.
Then, after her son, Lorenzo Ward, was killed,¿ Williams' grief made it hard for her to work.
Ward, 29, was shot to death the night of Sept. 1 less than two blocks from the main entrance to Children's Hospital in North Oakland.
Police believe he was by himself when someone approached and shot him. He died at the scene, becoming Oakland's 81st homicide of the year. Police haven't found the person who killed him.
The grief Williams felt was nearly overwhelming, and she could barely concentrate on her work as a tenant rights advocate for Just Cause, a nonprofit housing rights agency. Just Cause eventually reduced her hours from full time to three hours a day.
Williams, a former Alameda County Behavioral Health Services employee disabled by eye disease, said she is confident she'll be able to return to Just Cause full time.
But until then, the assistance from places like Downs is imperative to cover her rent, food and support for her two teenage children. "It really does help people," Williams said. She tried renewing her disability
So, after paying her $1,100 rent on a two-bedroom apartment, there's not a lot left over. "This year is worse than ever," she said.
Indeed, each year the need at Downs Memorial grows. In 2009, fewer than 150 people showed up for the Share the Spirit party. The next year, volunteers prepared for 200. At Wednesday's party, they ran out of chairs.
The annual Christmas party began five years ago as an extension of the weekly free lunch sponsored by Fishes and Loaves.
Most of the men and women who showed up every Wednesday for the lunchtime meal had no family and would have spent the holidays alone. So Fishes and Loaves director Norma Lampley decided to host a holiday party for them.
It is still a modest affair and does not make up for the precariousness of poverty, especially during Christmas.
But the Share the Spirit holiday party meal of gumbo, pie and eggnog was hearty, and the talent show, which began after a raffle, filled the room with singing, laughter and generous appreciation for every act.
Williams took to the floor and began singing "I Decided to Make Jesus my Choice."
"Go ahead girl and sing it," yelled her best friend, Redana Johnson, whose son was killed in 2004 in Richmond.
Williams' niece and Amber Evans, the girlfriend of Lorenzo Ward, recited a poem about Christmas.
The church serves mostly people from the area around Idaho and 60th streets, but no one is turned down. The food for the meal is sold to Downs at a discount by the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Funds for the event come from the Alameda County Social Services Agency, this newspaper's Share the Spirit campaign, Volunteers of the East Bay and donations from volunteers.
"Anybody who's hungry can come to this party," Lampley said.
Williams had to leave before gift bags were handed out.
She reluctantly left the church early to get to work on time, with a bag of food in one hand and another filled with toiletries in the other, still counting her blessings.
"It's going to be all right," she said.
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by this newspaper, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate. Readers with questions and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.