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Churches overcome difficulties to serve needy at Christmas (Dec. 9, 2004)

Churches overcome difficulties to serve needy at Christmas (Dec. 9, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Churches overcome difficulties to serve needy at Christmas

Dec. 9, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0205}

An e-Review and Feature
By Neill Caldwell**

PORT CHARLOTTE — Members of Port Charlotte United Methodist Church decided damage from Hurricane Charley would not keep them from hosting their 19th annual Christmas meal for people in need.

"We thought about canceling the meal this year, but there were people in the church who say, 'We need it more than ever.' We sustained more than $400,000 in damages at the church but have not missed a Sunday, and have not missed out on being able to serve this community," the Rev. Jim Kuse says.

The Port Charlotte church is one of many United Methodist congregations that serve meals for the needy, as well as reaching out to those who have no family and simply want to be with other people at Christmas.

Still, this will be a tough Christmas for the Florida church, located on the state's west coast between Sarasota and Fort Myers-ground zero for Hurricane Charley, which ravaged the community with 195 mile-per-hour winds Aug. 13. The roof of the church, since replaced, was only the most visible hurricane damage.

"But it's harder for us this year because we've lost about 200 members who won't be coming back, people whose homes were destroyed and they've gone elsewhere to live," Kuse says.

Since the hurricane, the church has received assistance from throughout the denomination, and is now serving as headquarters for United Methodist Committee on Relief efforts in the area.

"We've received help from all over the country and from all over our conference. But God has provided this church with the strength to provide help for the rest of our community," Kuse says.

Across the community, neighborhoods were a total loss. Thousands of people around Port Charlotte are living in temporary housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In 2003, volunteers served about 760 meals, and organizers expect to serve more people this year.

"We advertise it as a community dinner for anyone," says Sue Edmiston, church business manager. "We partner with the Genesis Center, which is a homeless agency here in town, and they help us get the word out that the meal is available.

"It's great to see the smiles on the faces of the people who participate," says Edmiston, "and to know that in some way they get to see the Lord. What better way to celebrate the Lord's birthday?"

Far to the north, a church in Oneonta, N.Y., serves a community that has been hit hard by a sluggish economy. Located in the rural center of the state, Oneonta is home to two colleges and far from the urban settings that so many associate with homelessness.

First United Methodist Church created "Saturday's Bread," a community meal held each weekend for those in need, and the congregation also participates in an ecumenical community project called "Friends of Christmas," providing a traditional holiday dinner for about 300 people. 

"We serve many low-income people and the elderly, and people without a family who just want to be around other people on Christmas," says Carol Forman, who helps coordinate the event.
First United Methodist Church in Lexington, Ky., held its first-ever community Christmas meal last year and will do so again this year.

The church already has a big homeless ministry. It provides the location and the volunteers for the Christmas meal as part of its outreach and its support of the Lexington Rescue Mission. It participates in the "Room at the Inn" sheltering program, and church members also work with the Hope Center, a local homeless agency.

Both the church and the community supported the meal's inaugural effort, Leonard says.

"Folks at the church thought it was a wonderful idea, and we had a huge turnout of volunteers. We have a large homeless population in Lexington, and we have 10 to 15 guys at the church on Monday and Tuesday nights as part of the Room at the Inn program," Leonard says.

The congregation has been collecting mittens and toboggans to give as gifts to participating adults, and teddy bears for any children who may come. 

The First United Methodist Church in Lawrence, Kan., has provided a Christmas Day meal for 11 years as part of an ecumenical effort.

Kent Ely, the church liaison for the event, sits on the board of the local homeless shelter and says the number of homeless is surprisingly high in this largely affluent community.

"We have a good number of homeless people, but we also have people who just want to share a meal with others."

Last year, the program served 798 meals, and the church is planning for more than 850 guests this year.

"For me, it's seeing the true meaning of Christmas," Ely added, "that there is hope, and we're sharing that hope with others."


This article relates to Outreach.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Caldwell is a freelance writer for United Methodist News Service based in High Point, N.C.