Santa in the Hood

Posted Feb 20, 2012 by 13 Comments

Few people drive through North Highlands besides the residents. It’s not on the “must see in Oklahoma City” list. It’s more like the part of town where you pray your car doesn’t break down.

A view of North Highlands.

Gangsters live here. Drugs sell here. Nine out of ten homes house someone who’s been arrested. Over 50% of kids who make it to high school drop out before graduating.

But when I walk down the street, the most shocking thing I see isn’t related to drugs or gangs. It’s not the dilapidated houses or ferocious guard dogs that occasionally escape their fences. The most surprising thing sits in a rocking chair on the porch of the little green corner house, thousands of miles from the North Pole, his reindeer and the magic workshop …

That’s right. Santa lives in this hood.

Part of the Neighborhood

By now, the neighborhood is used to the sight of Dan hanging out here on his porch. He receives visits from the local kids year-round.

I’m living with the real deal—the beard, the suit, the benevolence. It all checks out. From Thanksgiving to Christmas every year he’s stationed in a local Christmas store, listening to the wishes of hundreds of children who pour through the doors for the chance to meet Santa. But the rest of the year, he’s Dan—Santa to the residents of the 73114 zip code.

Twelve years ago, Dan and his deceased wife, Gae, committed themselves to this neighborhood. They recognized the need for hope amidst the chaos of the hood and founded Mustard Seed Development Corporation to organize the community and bring healing.

It wasn’t long before they moved into the neighborhood themselves, right in the section where 11 murders happened within a half square mile in six months…not what every home buyer seeks. But Dan and Gae felt called to right here, despite good sense and logic that tells most people to avoid places like this. Instead, they packed up and followed Jesus logic.

An attempt at security by one of the neighborhood residents!

From within the neighborhood, Dan and Gae began meeting their neighbors and organizing volunteers to pursue projects like elderly home repair. They supported local businesses, helped renters become home owners and organized community events. After a few years in business, Gae was diagnosed with cancer and passed away, but the work of Mustard Seed continues through Dan and a core group of staff and volunteers.

What I Can’t Understand

The work of Mustard Seed flexes to encompass and support the desires of community members in hopes that the residents of 73114 will be able to create a healthy community. Low income should not necessitate violence, crime, abuse and broken families, but it does in North Highlands as well as thousands of neighborhoods like it across the U.S.

We’re a country of opulence next to slums. Yes, honest to goodness slums. Maybe people aren’t starving, but they are isolated and sedated with the bare minimum necessities, raising children without fathers in homes marked with senseless bullet holes, next door to drug dealers.

I’ve never asked what it’s like to live on food stamps or be denied a Section 8 housing voucher. I’ve never had to rely on an inadequate bus system or survive on minimum wage or try to get a job after serving time in prison. I’m not forced to put my kids in a school where more than half of the students drop out.

The Mustard Seed office, located on the busy road through the 73114 zip code.

But I help create policy that dictates these things. My vote and my advocacy—or lack thereof—hold just as much weight as someone who actually depends on these services.

And I’ve never even asked what it’s like.

A Higher Calling

I’m blessed to be walking with those who aren’t afraid to ask. The folks here at Mustard Seed are immersed in a community that’s received more than its fair share of suffering. The agenda is simple: show love, support what is good and bring justice.

As Dan explains it, “I imagine everything was really nice in heaven, but Jesus came to this hood we call earth.”

Mary is one of the Mustard Seed volunteers responsible for caring for this community.

Dan and his new wife Carol live to love their neighbors, be in relationship with their community and advocate when needed. Their lives are enriched by the goodness in the people here, despite what the statistics say. They allow themselves to love first, and the love brings opportunities to serve.

Granted, it helps to look like Santa Claus—people seem to be much more forthcoming when you’re the international symbol of goodwill, but we’re all capable of living this way. In fact, we’re all called.

It’s time we lose the “us” and “them” lingo. What would our society look like if we all just considered ourselves neighbors and showed a little love?

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Next Steps
    • Learn more about mustard seed from their website.
    • Know the demographics of your city? Look for the neighborhood statistics on things like crime, high school dropout rates, numbers of single-parent homes, unemployment, etc. Are there any “slums” in your city? How did it get that way? What’s being done?
    • Pray for the residents of the 73114 area code and the work of Mustard Seed here in OKC.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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  1. Curtis Honeycutt said... 


    February 20th, 2012 at 8:51 am  

    “We’re a country of opulence next to slums.”

    …What a beautiful line.

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:25 am  

      Thanks Curtis. And I really mean, “next to.” A VERY affluent neighborhood sits a few blocks from this area.

  2. Lisa D said... 


    February 20th, 2012 at 12:23 pm  

    Thank-you Laura for sharing the love, courage and obedience of Dan and Gae, now Dan and Carol. A truly moving display of love in action and the faith to move mountains.

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:29 am  

      No problem, Lisa! They fit so seamlessly into this neighborhood–it’s obvious they’re where they should be.

  3. Dave Rod said... 


    February 20th, 2012 at 2:08 pm  

    whoa! Now this got me thinking…

    “I help create policy that dictates these things. My vote and my advocacy—or lack thereof—hold just as much weight as someone who actually depends on these services.”

    thanks Laura!

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:30 am  

      No problem. The realization shook me a little, too…

  4. Emmy said... 


    February 20th, 2012 at 10:30 pm  

    I love hearing these stories of people who are so bold and unqhamed to live out their faih. Great article!!

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:32 am  

      Thanks, Emmy! They are wonderful examples to all of us.

  5. Maeven said... 


    February 22nd, 2012 at 4:53 pm  

    Loved this story. Thank you.

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:32 am  

      No problem :) I love these people!

  6. Rick J. said... 


    February 26th, 2012 at 1:24 pm  

    Thanks for this message. I have known Dan personally for many years, well before Mustard Seed was born. He is one of only a small few I know that actually “walk the walk” and gives his all to his calling on this earth. He has always had my utmost respect and admiration!

    • Laura Stump said... 


      March 23rd, 2012 at 6:15 pm  

      Ditto, Rick! It’s wonderful to see someone following the “incarnational” model of serving others.

  7. Carolynn said... 


    December 16th, 2015 at 1:10 pm  

    <3 So much.

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