Couple cherishes time together at West Side Valentine’s Day fete: ‘It’s been 7 happy years’

The Rev. Cornelius Parks of Good Hope Free Will Baptist Church has been organizing the ‘Loveday’ celebration for years, handing out hot meals, treats and necessities.

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Jennifer Willis, 50, kisses her boyfriend Larry Levon, 59, who is holding up seven fingers to symbolize the seven years they’ve been together, during a “Loveday Celebration” at the Good Hope Free Will Baptist Church on the West Side. The church planned to provide food, clothes and hygiene kits to about 750 people experiencing homelessness to celebrate Valentine’s Day, according to Pastor Cornelius Parks.

Jennifer Willis, 50, kisses her boyfriend, Larry Levon, 59. The couple, who has been together for seven years, celebrated Valentine’s Day at the Loveday event at Good Hope Free Will Baptist Church on the West Side.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Larry Levon and Jennifer Willis stay on the West Side. As an unhoused couple, living without a home has been hard, but their time together has been sweet.

“It’s been seven happy years,” said Levon, 59.

The Chicago natives recalled those years on Tuesday at a Valentine’s Day event specifically geared toward unhoused individuals — the sixth annual Loveday celebration at Good Hope Free Will Baptist Church on the West Side.

The Rev. Cornelius Parks, the church pastor, began organizing the event when he was based on the South Side and brought it to the West Side last year after taking over the decades-old church located at Harrison Street and California Avenue.

Volunteers greeted visitors and passed out bags to be filled with goodies, including heart-shaped baked goods, clothing, toiletries such as shampoo, deodorant and lotion, and finally, a plate of soul food provided by MacArthur’s Restaurant in Austin.

Levon and Willis were among the first inside the small West Side church. They recounted their romance while enjoying a meal of grilled and fried chicken, green bean casserole, mac and cheese and cornbread.

He saw her first. The two were at a shelter several blocks away in North Lawndale, and he noticed her through a window, getting some fresh air outside.

“I’m going to marry that woman right there,” he recalled saying. “My heart pounded.”

He went up to talk to her and ask if they could spend some time together. “She just smiled, and she said, ‘We’ll see,’” Levon recalled.

Willis, 50, grinned as he told their story.

“We feel like we’ve been married since the first day we met,” she said.

The couple finished their meal and left, making room at the table for the dozens of others who would follow.

The small space — meant for a congregation of 75 people — was packed with volunteers handing out goods and visitors at tables. Parks estimated that 150 guests attended.

Between the plates served at the church and others handed out by volunteers around the city on Valentine’s Day, Parks said they distributed 750 meals, which were paid for with $4,000 from DoorDash’s Community Credits program.

Pastor Cornelius Parks holds the door open for a person attending a “Loveday Celebration” at the Good Hope Free Will Baptist Church on the West Side. The church planned to provide food, clothes and hygiene kits to about 750 people experiencing homelessness to celebrate Valentine’s Day, according to Parks.

The Rev. Cornelius Parks of Good Hope Free Will Baptist Church on the West Side said the church handed out 750 meals Tuesday. The effort was funded by $4,000 from the DoorDash Community Credits Program. Guests also received packages containing sweet treats and toiletries.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“We cover a lot of ground. We don’t just stick to the East Garfield community, we’re in North Lawndale, we’re even in communities on the South Side,” Parks said.

Parks, who was raised on the West Side, said the situation in the church’s neighborhood was acute, at times leading to violence, including the mass shooting in October in which 14 people, including three kids, were shot. One person died.

“The shooting brought awareness of what’s been absent in the Garfield Park community for many years. There’s a food desert in this community. Many things are missing,” Parks said. “The church has been mandated to do so much with limited resources. We try to do the best we can.”

The Valentine’s Day celebration was the first of seven large giveaways the church organizes every year. The next is on the Saturday before Easter.

Jennifer Willis, 50, and her boyfriend of seven years Larry Levon, 59, take a picture together during a “Loveday Celebration” at the Good Hope Free Will Baptist Church on the West Side. The church planned to provide food, clothes and hygiene kits to about 750 people experiencing homelessness to celebrate Valentine’s Day, according to Pastor Cornelius Parks.

Jennifer Willis, 50, and her boyfriend of seven years, Larry Levon, 59, take a picture together at the Loveday celebration. When Levon first saw Willis he said to himself, “I’m going to marry that woman right there,” he recalled on Valentine’s Day.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

On Tuesday, Edward Harris and Grady Brown didn’t miss a hot meal. The pair of friends stay at a shelter around the corner from the church, and Brown was outside when he noticed a woman wearing an apron.

“She must be cooking,” thought Brown, 64.

He asked her, and she told him to come get a plate. He grabbed Harris, 54, and they headed over. Brown was familiar with the church already — having gone there to receive food at other times or to pick things up, like a sleeping bag — but he didn’t expect the congregation to share the love on Valentine’s Day too.

“You’d think because it’s a small church that they don’t do a lot, but they do,” he said, “especially for us that are homeless.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

Edward Harris, 54, and Grady Brown, 64, hang out near the intersection of Harrison Street and California Avenue, near where the two friends attended a “Loveday Celebration” at the Good Hope Free Will Baptist Church on the West Side. The church planned to provide food, clothes and hygiene kits to about 750 people experiencing homelessness to celebrate Valentine’s Day, according to Pastor Cornelius Parks.

Edward Harris, 54, and Grady Brown, 64, are friends who stay around the corner from the church and attended the Loveday celebration.

Michael Loria/Sun-Times

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