One congregation I served hosted a Thanksgiving meal every year for clients at our local food bank. This dinner was almost always done on the Saturday before Thanksgiving day. That one night the church would serve anywhere between two hundred to three hundred people in our area. It was a massive, exhausting, frustrating, and yet rewarding work. I recall one young lady who came in that night on her dinner break at a local Wendy’s. She told her coworkers that she wasn’t hanging around there for break. “I am going to eat a great meal.” She said.
I cannot say the dinner was better than any other that could have been put on. It was (and I hope still is) an amazing experience to witness. Eighty-something year old people guided young adults in serving while the middle-aged adults cooked, wiped down tables, and washed utensils the whole time. I marveled how I could not get my oldest son to pick his socks up off the floor while an eighty-three year old lady could have him carry heavy serving trays of food. And I was proud of him for doing it too. I wonder what he would have done if he knew I was watching?
Being the Pastor, I was usually in three places at once. I might be greeting people as they arrived. I was easily recognized by food bank clients because I helped there every week. Or I may have been helping to clean or carry out garbage. Or I could be sitting at a table just being company to someone who otherwise had no one else there. Once-in-a-while I would be helping those lay persons who were managing the whole program cope with some problem.
After one meal ended, the person coordinating serving said to me, “I was afraid we would run out of food. But there are two turkeys back there we haven’t even carved yet.” I replied, “I once heard a similar story about loaves and fish.” Her response was, “Had to be.”
One year we added a thanksgiving dinner to the one we already did. I for one do not like the idea of churches feeling like they need to do something every holiday. I never thought much of “trunk r treat.” A congregation is more than a service organization trying to get its “brand” out there. A church is most of all a community of those people who want to be disciples of Jesus as Christ. Many times that means acting as a community for one another. I do not mean merely doing activities as a group. I mean acting in ways that support each other. That is where the added Thanksgiving meal came in to our work.
While I served that congregation we lived more than a few hours away from our extended family. We did not live far enough away to make a major trip home to stay a few days. If we went “home” for Thanksgiving, it would mean spending most of the holiday on the road. We usually stayed home. Something really wasn’t right about that either. We talked to some other families and individuals at church to see what could be done to remove the burdens of traveling or isolation. We learned there were quite a few of us. And we learned that some of the older church members would be alone on Thanksgiving day itself. We decided we would have Thanksgiving day at the church fellowship hall for people at the church who wanted to come and to bring friends if they wished.
We had a time of devotion before the meal. I told the story of how Thanksgiving observances began from The United Methodist Book of Worship. It was not the story of the pilgrims and native Americans we often tell. Then we ate, talked together served each other, and cleaned up together. It really was a fun time for everyone. I thought it had been a good idea and a good plan executed. And then I found out it was something more.
One older couple that attended our church usually spent their summers traveling the northeastern rural areas of the United States and the plains of Canada. They had an itenerary of churches they visited every year to host Vacation Bible Schools. The work they did was not a “retirement project.” No. This was a mission for them. And they worked very hard at it. They were able to be present for the Thanksgiving dinner.
I saw him sitting there appearing to contemplate what was going on. I walked over and asked, “What do you think?” It was then I saw his eyes were red.
“This is the way Thanksgiving always was for my family when I was little.” He said. “We ate at church.” He went on. “I never really knew my Dad. He was a very violent and vicious man. He had children everywhere. He didn’t take care of us. I don’t believe he was legally married to my mom. We weren’t the only family he abandoned. My mom did the best she could and the church always helped us. We always had Thanksgiving at church.” He said.
I nodded. “I am glad you got to be with us this time.” I said.
There were a lot of people in the church who believed he and I would never get along. I was seminary educated and well-read. He was not seminary trained. He was pretty much a fundamentalist in how he thought. He could be a little awkward. Some said he was arrogant.
He turned out to be one of my best supporters at the church. He took notes during my sermons. He attended every Bible study that I taught when he could. He showed me the materials he used on what I thought of as his “missionary journeys.” He asked if I had any advice or ideas that could help him. If he had friends visiting, he made a point to introduce me. “This is our Pastor Don.”
I have tears in my eyes now just thinking about the friendship we shared. That Thanksgiving meal became the one of the best I have attended because it meant so much to him.
The hosts of a podcast I listen to asks their guests questions. The last one is “Assuming Heaven is real what do you want to hear God say?”
My answer is “Charlie has been waiting on you with the others.”