Last year, at a Council on Ministries meeting, the Rev. Don Perks shared that God had laid something on his heart. The senior pastor of Willoughby (Ohio) United Methodist Church hoped the congregation might organize a dinner for people in the community—on Christmas Day, just two weeks away.
Church members agreed, and quickly scrambled to enlist volunteers, line up donations of food and get the word out. And somehow, they pulled it off. About 100 folks turned up for a feast of ham, potatoes, green beans and Christmas cookies.
“It was so successful that we knew we wanted to do it again this year,” said Sue Penicka, the church’s communications coordinator. And because they’re starting earlier, they hope they’ll be able to serve even more this year.
“We don’t take reservations, but we’re hoping to get lots and lots of people,” she said.
For most Americans, Christmas Day is spent at home with family, opening gifts and enjoying a leisurely meal. But more than a few United Methodist churches have chosen to feed others on that day, including those who may have nowhere else to go.
Inadvertently or not, these Christmas Day outreach events echo the denomination’s 2012 holiday advertising tagline “Reclaiming Christmas,” with its emphasis on service to others rather than shopping, gifts and festivities.
First United Methodist Church in Chestertown, Md., is one of those churches. For the sixth year in a row, members will host a “Feast of Love” community meal on Christmas Day. The congregation, which averages about 70 people in weekly attendance, expects about 200 guests.
“For us, it is more than just food,” said the Rev. Rick Vance, Chestertown First’s pastor. “It’s a time for people who don’t have family to have family again.”
Yvonne Arrowood, a church member who coordinates the event, adds: “We don’t want anybody to spend Christmas Day by themselves.”
The church serves a turkey dinner with plenty of sides and desserts. Admission is free, and the entire community is invited to attend.
Not everyone who comes is homeless or needy. Attendees also include students from nearby Washington College who can’t get home for the holidays, seniors living alone and folks who just want to celebrate the occasion with neighbors.
“You see people eating together that you would not expect to see together, people who’ve never met having a good time with each other,” said Dr. Vance. “It’s been an amazing blessing.”
Other local congregations pitch in, providing food and volunteers. The church began offering the Christmas feast in the 1980s; after a hiatus, the event was revived in 2007. That year, the dinner was funded out of the church budget, but every year since it’s been self-sustaining. By mid-October, enough donations—all unsolicited—had come in to pay for this year’s meal.
Like Willoughby UMC, First UMC in Chestertown scrambled a bit when it revived the tradition, on fairly short notice, in 2007.
“What seemed insurmountable became a piece of cake,” Dr. Vance recalls. “God provides.”
It might seem that Christmas would be the hardest of days to rustle up volunteers. But organizers of holiday dinners at United Methodist churches say that isn’t a problem.
“Believe it or not, we have to turn away volunteers,” said Bruce Aston, who spearheads the Christmas Day dinner at Canvas Community UMC in Little Rock, Ark.
Bill Ball, a certified lay minister and organizer of the Christmas Day dinner at Asbury UMC in Charles Town, W.Va., said he was surprised by the support for that event.
“Whole families wanted to bring their kids, so they could understand that giving is more important than receiving on Christmas Day,” he said.
Asbury expects about 250 people this Christmas Day for its third annual community meal. Local businesses, Scout troops and the VFW have donated food; members of other churches pitch in, too.
Christmas seems to put potential volunteers “in a place where they want to share,” Dr. Vance observes.
Sitting down together
Christmas Day dinners also fill a gap. While many churches offer Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas Day dinners are a bit more unusual.
“This is a tough time of year for some people and as far as I know we’re the only church in the area who does this at Christmas,” said Mr. Ball. He added that those living alone, without family nearby, can be especially lonely on Christmas Day.
“They feel depressed, they need the company of fellow human beings, and there’s no restaurants open that day,” he said.
Asbury also collects items like soap, shampoo and toothpaste for diners to take home. In addition to the meals served in the church, church members will deliver meals to about 50 shut-ins.
At Canvas Community UMC in Little Rock, church members expect to serve about 250 people on Christmas Day. Many will come from a nearby homeless shelter and a battered women’s shelter.
“It’s a very family atmosphere,” said Mr. Aston. “It’s not ‘us feeding them.’ The volunteers sit down with the guests and have the meal with them.”
Because the church serves the homeless year-round, many volunteers will know the guests by name. Gift bags are distributed, with toiletries, hats, socks and underwear.
This year, Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Tallahassee, Fla., will hold its 25th annual Christmas Day community dinner. About 300-400 people are expected.
Blue and Gloria Whitaker, co-coordinators, have volunteered at the event for 20 of those years. Mr. Whitaker says the gathering means as much to volunteers as to the needy people who come for the meal.
“It’s not just to feed people who are hungry,” he said. “It’s to feed people who need something to do on Christmas Day.” Many people who live in Tallahassee—including students and government employees—are transplants who don’t have family in town. Only about a third of the event’s volunteers are Trinity members.
Mr. Whitaker has assembled an all-male crew of cooks—“It’s great, because we don’t have to watch our language in the kitchen,” he jokes—including “one guy who does nothing but gravy” for the last 15 or so events. Some are third-generation participants. “There are guys in the kitchen who began bringing their sons 20 years ago, and now their sons are bringing their sons,” Mr. Whitaker said.
The event has attracted participation from businesses and other community organizations. For the “goodie bags” which attendees take home, a local Kiwanis group donates fruit; a group of ladies in the church knits hats and scarves. Another nearby congregation, Killearn United Methodist, brings homemade pies. A crack team of volunteer carolers and musicians provides musical entertainment.
“We’ve got it down to an art,” Mr. Whitaker says. “It’s fun.”
Volunteers at such events can count on an appreciative audience.
For example, the local paper covered Willoughby UMC’s inaugural Christmas meal, and quoted one woman as saying, “These people basically gave up their Christmas, so we could have one.”
Another woman used imagery of the story of Christ’s birth in expressing her appreciation.
“Everyone was very welcoming,” she told the Willoughby News-Herald. “I’m glad they had some room at the inn for us.”