Thanksgiving is all about tradition, and for almost half a century, it’s been a tradition of Winchester First United Methodist Church to offer a holiday dinner to those who might otherwise not have one.
The tradition returned this Thanksgiving after it was discontinued in 2020 because of concerns about the coronavirus, but with a change — this time all the meals were for delivery; there would be no dining in so as to reduce the risk.
At 10 o’clock Thursday morning, the church’s basement dining hall and kitchen were crowded. There was a long serving line, but those who held out their styrofoam boxes to be filled with turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes and green beans were volunteers like the masked servers on the other side of the tables.
Mike Jackson, who has been the organizer of the effort for about a decade, called it “organized chaos.”
He was in charge of overseeing about 150 workers for four hours.
“We just try to keep all the volunteers moving in the same direction as best we can,” he said. “We try to make it as efficient as possible so people aren’t here all day long. They’re already giving up a lot of their holiday.”
But those who were helping didn’t seem to mind; they were having a good time.
Jamey Tolle said this was his first year.
“Our whole family … is involved,” he said.
“This is wonderful!” Pastor Farley Stuart remarked.
The church on Thursday delivered nearly 1,200 prepared meals. Stuart said he doesn’t know of any other group in Clark County that was doing that on the same scale.
But it isn’t only Winchester First UMC that does it. Sister churches First Fire and Trinity United Methodist — and this year First Church of God on Colby Road — played a big part in preparing the meals and providing volunteers, as did others from the community.
Jackson said that fewer than half of the volunteers are from the Methodist congregations.
“About a third of them I’d never seen before,” he said. “It’s not just our church.”
Jackson said participants cooked the 61 turkeys at home and brought them to the kitchen to be carved and prepared, and all the side dishes were prepared on-site.
The project began around 10 a.m. Thursday with a gathering in the sanctuary upstairs, and by about 2 p.m., the meals were delivered and the cleanup was done.
“We actually ran out of turkey” and had to make do with some “emergency ham,” for the last deliveries, he said.
All of the food is donated by people in the community.
Jackson said the meals are for anyone, “no questions asked.” Some have “food insecurity issues.” Others are those who can’t cook or who might be home alone, he said. It doesn’t matter.
“If there’s a need, for whatever reason, we’ll bring them a hot meal,” he said.
Jackson said he doesn’t know exactly when the tradition started. How it started, though, was that sometime in the 1970s, parishioners learned there were many widowers and other singles in the church who wouldn’t be having Thanksgiving dinner at home. So the church decided to bring them together for food and fellowship, and many families joined them as well.
Eventually, they figured that if there were that many single people in their church, the need in the community for such an event must be great, so they opened the doors to those outside their congregation.
Then they started doing deliveries to home-bound people and others, and before this year, something like 95 percent of all the meals were delivered.
Why do they do it?
“I think it fits perfectly with what the church’s mission should be,” Jackson said.
The church is called to help people in need and show hospitality, but it’s also a way of expressing gratitude on a day set aside that purpose.
“It’s just giving back and showing that we’re thankful for everything we have,” he said.
It’s also a way of showing appreciation to other churches and community groups that feed the poor, those with disabilities, and others year-round, because some of them take the day off on Thanksgiving.
And none of the leftover food goes to waste, Jackson said, because at the end of the day, whatever isn’t served to those who requested it goes to partners such as the Ark of Mercy and Beacon of Hope, so that they can also make use of it to help others.