Caribbean flair makes for fruitful Harvest Sunday

“We obligate ourselves to bring first fruits of our ground and the first fruits of all fruit of every tree,year by year, to the house of the Lord.” – Nehemiah 10:35 

Harvest Sunday procession at Fulford UMC 2011
Children form a procession to the chancel under the sugarcane arch for Harvest Sunday 2011 at Fulford UMC. Photo from Fulford UMC, North Miami Beach.

When some South Florida United Methodists celebrate this time of year, it’s not with turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie, but with “first fruits,” vegetables and music reminiscent of Caribbean traditions. They call it Harvest Sunday.

Many churches will pull out all the stops on Nov. 18, the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day. Others choose other Sundays in the month, but all make a colorful, flavorful, musical show of their gratitude for a bountiful harvest.

Dr. Cynthia Weems, pastor at First UMC, Miami, said her congregation has been celebrating Harvest Sunday for 25 years.

“It’s a beautiful Sunday to celebrate the physical bounty of the harvest and to be thankful for the people who make it possible for us to have these fruits and vegetables, as we are in an urban center,” she said.

Her church traditionally celebrates the harvest by adorning the chancel area with food. During the service, children enter the sanctuary in procession, carrying corn and coins and singing traditional hymns, such as “Come, Ye Faithful People, Come.”

Adults participate as well, some bringing pledges. Weems’ parishioners include people from all areas of the Caribbean, including Central America, Belize and Honduras. They are steeped in the tradition of symbolic “first fruits” mentioned in Proverbs, Nehemiah, Romans, Corinthians and other books of the Bible.

At the end of the service, people make a donation and choose something for themselves from the bounty. After worship, the donations and leftover produce go to the senior meals program. 

Children's procession Harvest Sunday 2007 at Miramar UMC
Children place gifts at a fruitfully decorated chancel during this 2007 Harvest Sunday celebration at Miramar UMC. Photo from Miramar UMC.

At Miramar UMC, Pastor David Range looks forward to the food and decorations that his flock brings to church for Harvest Sunday.

“They make an archway out of sugarcane and decorate the church with things like banana trees, and it takes two hymns for the children to bring their baskets of non-perishable foods down to the altar,” Range said.

Other gifts might include avocados from people’s gardens and home-baked goods, like potato pudding and coconut drops.

“We ask a blessing over these things. Then, after the service, the church holds a sale with the proceeds going to local missions. … It’s quite something to see,” he said. The mainly Caribbean congregation of about 160 has been doing this for about 15 years.

In addition to the food, the service includes a medley of hymns, such as “We Gather Together” and “For Fruits of This Creation,” played on a steel drum and interspersed with personal testimonies of thanksgiving.

Roland Abel, a member since 1999, helps makes Harvest Sunday happen, collecting  homegrown items for the offering.

“Our members who have gardens will pick the biggest and best of their harvest and save it for the church,” he said.

People get together on Saturday evening to decorate the church and spread out the bounty. 

Island style music adds to Harvest Sunday celebration at Fulford UMC
Hymns played island style add to this Harvest Sunday celebration at Fulford UMC. Photo from Fulford UMC, North Miami Beach.

Fulford UMC, North Miami Beach, puts a unique spin on Harvest Sunday, a tradition celebrated there for 25 years. Young people use 5-gallon paint buckets as drums to play praise music and traditional songs.

“It’s like the ‘Stomp’ musical,” Pastor Marta Burke said.

The congregation also cuts loose with traditional songs accompanied by steel drums and played with island rhythms.
“We sing ‘Thank We All Our God’ and ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ in a different way,” Burke said.

Her congregation of 300 encompasses about 25 different nationalities, including many who are familiar with the British Methodist tradition. Donations of goods and money on Harvest Sunday go to Stop Hunger Now.

Pastor Aurilus Desmornes at Norland UMC, Miami, said his church celebrates with both a Harvest Banquet on Saturday and a Harvest Sunday worship.

“It is a major event in the life of Norland, a multicultural activity [mostly Caribbean style] since we have many cultures in our congregation,” Desmornes said.

At New Horizon UMC, Southwest Ranches, church members decorate the sanctuary with sugarcane, banana trees, pineapples and other fruits and vegetables. Children form a procession to the altar with food. Canned goods also are donated for the nearby Hallandale Food Pantry.  This year’s service is scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 11. 

Harvest Sunday bounty decorates this altar at Miramar UMC
Fruit and vegetables adorn the chancel area at Miramar UMC from a previous year's Harvest Sunday. Photo from Miramar UMC.

Rev. Patricia Daniels, in her sixth year at the church, has invited Rev. Errol Leslie, a native Jamaican from Palm Bay UMC, to deliver the message. Harvest-theme hymns will be sung in a traditional Anglican style with organ music.

Daniels said the celebration was already a tradition when her tenure began. She looks forward to the Harvest Sunday feast, which will include a variety of food and drinks, not just from Jamaica, but also from Antigua, Cuba, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands.  She expects homemade ginger beer and ginger lemonade, jerk chicken and lamb to be on the menu.

“Our congregation definitely does their own thing on Harvest Sunday,” she said. 

Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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