When Susie Jennings’ husband of nearly a decade killed himself one April morning in 1993, she couldn’t see a way forward.
"An officer found David's decomposing body in a ravine, 30 days after he'd disappeared," Jennings told The Christian Post. "He'd shot himself in the head after years of suffering from a chemical imbalance that caused severe depression."
“I was so angry at David for leaving me. He was supposed to sing in church that same week; he'd been saved as a little boy. But illness took him from me. We buried him three days before my birthday.”
Shortly after the loss of her husband, Jennings survived a devastating car accident, leaving her disabled for several months. During that time, her neighbor also died by suicide.
“At that point, my anger became directed at God,” she said. “But one night, He gave me a dream. In it, I saw myself knocking on my neighbor’s door, telling them about Jesus. That morning, I woke up and I decided to choose joy. I said, ‘God, what can I do for you?’”
While driving home from a worship service in Dallas in November of that same year, Jennings heard a voice clearly say, “look to your left side.” There, she saw over 100 men, women and children living in cardboard boxes.
“The voice said to me, ‘You're going to go there in person and minister to these people,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘No, no. Not these people. I don’t like homeless people.’ And God said, ‘You were the one who asked me. You need to bring these people blankets.'”
An immigrant from the Philippines, Jennings shared how growing up, she hated when her mother would serve the homeless in the local community.
“When I was a little girl, my mother would feed the homeless and poor in our kitchen, and I didn’t like it,” she admitted. “I didn’t like these dirty people occupying my space and eating my food and coming into my house.”
But after hearing God’s voice that day in 1993, Jennings said she was instantly convicted: “This is why I tell people, ‘Don’t ask God what you can do for Him unless you’re prepared because He’ll take you out of your comfort zone,” she said. “That’s what He did to me. The Lord led me to the very group of people I didn’t like and it all started in my mother’s kitchen.”
Then a nurse at a major hospital, Jennings began purchasing blankets and asking others to help her buy more. The blankets were distributed with the Gospel message, food and love. On more than one occasion, she stayed overnight with the homeless, immersing herself in their lives.
It wasn’t long before the homeless community gave Jennings a nickname: The Blanket Lady.
In 2001, Jennings’ willingness to step out in faith and serve God and her community prompted her to launch Operation Care International. Today, the faith-based nonprofit organization serves thousands of homeless, destitute, and low-income families in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and around the world.
OCI provides hot meals, an array of health and personal care services, plus clothing, sleeping bags, and blankets to those in need. It also provides free phone calls home, seeking to reunite families.
“We are an evangelistic street ministry,” she said. “We provide the physical and spiritual needs of the homeless and poor. While giving them gifts, we tell them about the greatest gift of all, and that is Jesus."
In 2004, OCI launched Operation Care Christmas Gift, determined to serve and honor the thousands of homeless at Christmas with an event held at the Dallas Convention Center.
The now annual event drew more than 15,000 people and 3,000 volunteers in December 2018. In honor of Jesus’ birthday, the event provided homeless individuals, veterans and impoverished families with coats, shoes, blankets, toys, meals, haircuts and eye care. The children in attendance enjoyed bounce houses, pony rides and a zipline.
This year, Nick Vujicic, founder of Life Without Limbs, shared with those in attendance an encouraging and inspirational message.
New shoes and socks come with the event's signature foot washing by volunteers and with the Gospel message presented by volunteers and entertainers.
“Nationwide, this is the largest event for the homeless, meaning that, aside from just numbers, the things that we do for them is more than other ministries — everything is free,” Jennings said. "Servanthood is the hallmark of OCI. Before He went to the cross, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, demonstrating how He washes away our sins. We follow Jesus by making this act the trademark of our ministry."
Over the last few years, thousands of lives have been changed as a result of OCI’s work. Jennings shared the story of one woman, Julie, a homeless veteran who lived in her car.
“She had to give up her son to her boyfriend because she couldn’t afford to care for him,” she recalled. “We put her in an apartment and paid her bills. If we hadn’t, she would’ve been on the waiting list for two years to get into the VA.”
Through OCI, Julie also received free dental care, a makeover, clothing and jewelry. “I wanted her to feel like a queen — a daughter of God,” Jennings explained.
Two years later, Julie showed up at OCI with an offering. “She wanted to give us money as a thank you, like the leper who came back and thanked Jesus,” she said.
Today, Julie has finished school and purchased a house. Her son graduated at the top of his class, and three major colleges in Texas offered him full scholarships. Most importantly — both mother and son came to know Christ through the ministry of OCI.
“Homelessness is a very hard thing to minister to because so often, they’re gone the next day,” Jennings said. “But if one life is changed, I’d do all the work a million times over. Jesus left 99 for one.”
Now, OCI’s ministry is going global. In 2012, God gave Jennings a vision to expand the Christmas Gift event and take its message of hope, transformation and the experience of Jesus’ love to more than 250 cities across the 50 states and to all 240 countries of the world.
Renamed the Global Birthday Party for Jesus, the event will occur on Dec. 19, 2020, reflecting God’s perfect vision of the salvation of the world. With $2.4 million raised so far, OCI is hoping to partner with World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse and Compassion International to make their vision a reality.
“God told me to take this mission global, but I was fearful because I didn’t know how we were going to raise the money,” Jennings said. “But one day, I received a phone call with a $2.4 million donation. In one phone call, God adopted the world. I said, ‘God forgive me for putting you in a box.’”
The event will culminate with a series of large gatherings held by the world’s greatest evangelists. Jennings hopes that Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, will lead the charge.
“We believe on that one day, millions will come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior,” she declared. “I believe this worldwide event will draw millions of new heirs to Jesus’ throne, from the bushes of Africa to the rivers of Columbia to the rich in China.”
While some may view her vision for OCI as a little too ambitious, Jennings said she’s sold out for Jesus and believes that childlike faith can move mountains.
“The guiding principle for the vision of OCI is in Romans 8:28, ‘And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,’” she said.
“This is just the beginning of evangelizing the world.”