OAKLAND -- Rev. George Murray is pastor of City of Refuge Tabernacle church at 8637 International Blvd. in a neighborhood fraught with challenges -- from gangs and guns to poverty and unemployment.
Ten days before Christmas, Valerie Lee Ow, owner of J. Miller Flowers on Piedmont Avenue, decided to help tackle some of those challenges by organizing a gift drive.
"We were really pleased with the amount of items we received," Ow said. "Piedmont Avenue merchants, our customers and friends all donated."
Rev. Murray, who has been a customer of J. Miller Flowers for 25 years, said the idea originated when he came into the shop "to make sure my bill was current."
While he was there, Piedmont resident Linda Arrellano stopped by the flower shop. When she heard of the huge need at the church, she said, "I have a houseful of things I can donate."
"She pulled up with a car load of stuff the next day, and that's how the drive got started," Ow said.
Rev. Murray said it wasn't just serendipity that he was at J. Miller Flowers that day.
"It's amazing how God foreordains," Rev. Murray said. "God's plan is to give us problems and solutions, it's all in his milieu."
Ow said people donated a small truckload of items, including Safeway gift cards, clothing, toys and luggage -- even a karaoke machine. Ow's sister, Robbin Lee, who also works at J. Miller Flowers, donated 31 pairs of shoes.
"One Piedmont lady who loves to knit brought in a huge bag of beautiful scarves," Ow said.
Rev. Murray said the scarves were perfect for the cold weather. He said a woman had approached him to see if the church could buy her a heater because she was freezing in her home.
"Somebody donated a heater in the gift drive, so we were able to give that to her," Rev. Murray said. "It's amazing how small things can have the greatest impact."
He said another lady saw a dish rack that Ow had donated, along with a lot of pots and pans.
"She said, 'Whose is that dish rack?'" Rev. Murray recalled. "I said, 'It's yours.'"
Rev. Murray said the woman cares for her four great-grandchildren, as well as two of her own children.
"There are many multi-generational issues that are not going to be solved overnight," Rev. Murray said. "A lot of fathers are gone, in prison or deceased. We know we have a lifetime of work ahead; it's not a one Band-Aid situation."
He said the recession has hurt the neighborhood, with people losing jobs and homes. One woman, who cared for the "emotionally challenged," lost the home she'd lived in for 40 years.
"In the schools that the church supports, 93 percent of families are receiving some kind of government assistance," Rev. Murray said.
He said that of all the funerals that are held at his church -- for which J. Miller Flowers often supplies the floral arrangements -- 25 percent are the result of drug traffic violence.
"Rev. Murray's church is in the most challenging part of Oakland," Ow said. "People need our help desperately."
While this is the first gift drive that Ow has organized for City of Refuge, it's not the first time her family has helped the church.
"My daughter Jacqueline -- who is now a student at UCSB -- started a clothing drive with her friend Natalie Herndon when they were students at Los Lomas High School in Walnut Creek," Ow said. "They collected about 150 bags of clothes, which they sorted and labeled according to age and gender and donated to Rev. Murray's church."
Ow plans to work with Piedmont Avenue Merchants Association to hold more gift drives -- which she has christened "Give Locally" -- and not just at holiday times. The next distribution is slated for March 13 and people are invited to drop off donations at the flower shop from March 1-13. Rev. Murray said the picture is by no means bleak. He said many kids in the neighborhood are "diamonds in the rough" who just need compassion and respect and "a good dose of morality."
He said: "While it looks like an insurmountable challenge, we manage by helping one person at a time. There are thousands of opportunities for us to bless and fulfill God's purpose."