This time of year, the civil rights leader and homeless advocate would normally be rounding up financial contributions, frozen turkeys and volunteers in preparation for the Feed the Hungry Thanksgiving Dinner tradition he started in 1970.
Not this year. Sidelined with cancer over the past six months, Williams is leaving the business of organizing the massive dinner to his daughter, Elizabeth Williams Omilami. A minister in her own right and an actress by training, Omilami has been preparing to fill in for her Dad for most of her life.
She helped out with the very first Feed the Hungry Thanksgiving when she was just 19.
"I remember that I was just trying to figure out what we were doing," she says. "My mother made the soup and I was serving the cornbread and we had about 100 men there at Wheat Street Baptist Church and I was thinking, 'This is really, really nice, but why are we doing this?' "
Later she would resent the respons- ibility that took her father away from his family every Thanksgiving. "I used to think, 'Well, what about us? We're your family.'"
Living so close to the front lines of the civil rights movement she saw more clearly than most how supposedly "distant" things such as government policies and academic ideologies impact private lives. Theater would become a haven, first in high school and then at Hampton University, where she would make her passion her major.
"In the real world, you never know what's going to happen to you," she says. "But in theater you have some control."
Her father supported her, lobbying the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to set up a theater for young blacks to produce, direct and star in their own plays.
In 1981, she followed her husband, actor Afemo Omilami, to New York, where he got a full scholarship to study theater at New York University. (He's since appeared in Remember the Titans, Forrest Gump, and The War.) Once in New York, she felt the tug of service. She went to work at the country's best known homeless shelter, Covenant House.
"There's an uneasiness in you when you try to ignore your destiny," she says. "You're unhappy and you don't know why. It's because you're trying to be something you're not. I tried to run away from it. But I couldn't."
Her destiny, she says, was to become a minister to the poor like her father. And, telling the story of her spiritual epiphany, she sounds a lot like him:
"There was a year when I lost everything. My husband went back to New York. I lost a house that I loved. I said, 'If there is a God, I need to know because I'm going to die if you don't show up.' I prayed and a great peace settled over me. It was a very powerful spiritual experience."
Her divine connections will come in handy this year. In fact, she may want to see if her dad's spiritual balance sheet is good for a miracle.
Her father usually begins fund-raising several months before the big event. Feed the Hungry, in fact, is a year-round endeavor. Mailings requesting help for the Thanksgiving Dinner should have gone out in August, but the senior Williams was too sick to see to it.
The Fulton County Jail has agreed, as in years past, to loan its kitchen to Feed the Hungry for Thanksgiving, while Ted Turner has turned over Turner Field for the dinner. The City of Atlanta, the State of Georgia, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Foods have all made their usual contributions, but Omilami says they haven't gone up, so the gap created by the failed mailing is a glaring problem. She's not sure exactly how far Feed the Hungry is falling short of its financial obligations for the dinner this year.
Each of the 18,000 meals costs about $2.50 to put together, for a total of $45,000. That doesn't include the cost of delivering 3,000 of the meals to people who are too sick or aged to leave their homes.
"The hardest thing that Daddy did that I can't do is that he has the ability to see the big picture in his head," says Omilami. "He could see it, trust God to make it happen and have the boldness to ask for what he needed."
To find out more about helping Feed the Hungry, call 404-755-3353 or send contributions to Feed the Hungry, P.O. Box 4672, Atlanta, Ga. 30310.
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