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United Methodist churches 'open doors' Christmas day

United Methodist churches 'open doors' Christmas day

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

United Methodist churches 'open doors' Christmas day

Jan. 7, 2005    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0219}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas for members of Englewood United Methodist Church if they didn't open their doors Christmas day for a community dinner that serves more than 1,000 people.

ENGLEWOOD — Guests enjoy dinner at Englewood United Methodist Church Christmas day. The church opened its doors to more than 1,400 of its neighbors for the annual community Christmas meal. Photo by Caroline McCoy, Photo #05-0131.

The church began its tradition of providing a Christmas day meal 14 years ago and has watched the number of dinner guests rise to 1,450 people this past Christmas.

The church provided more than just a meal served on dinnerware. The gathering also featured an ensemble of live music, and members delivered 181 meals to people who couldn't get to the church. Every meal was provided at no cost.

Flora Baines, co-chairwoman of the event, said about 200 church and community volunteers planned the event. She said there are sometimes more volunteers than needed because some don't want to be alone and enjoy the camaraderie that goes along with helping others.

"We get a little bit of every type of person," said Baines, who retired to the area from Liverpool, N.Y., in 1992. "My husband, Jim, and I started coming a few years ago because it was too cold to go up north. We have those people who are in need and those people who don't have family. It's really for anybody."

Members began preparing for the event in November, and Jim Baines prepared 66 turkeys the week of Christmas. The event took the Baineses away from their home Christmas Eve to decorate and Christmas day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., but they said they wouldn't have it any other way.

ENGLEWOOD — Englewood United Methodist Church member Dick Hire becomes "Cranberry Man," serving cranberries to guests at the church's Christmas day community meal. Photo by Caroline McCoy, Photo #05-0132.

"It's very rewarding," Flora said. "It's wonderful to be able to give back a little of what's been given to you."

The church isn't alone in its outreach efforts. Many United Methodist churches focused on reaching beyond their walls during the Advent season.

Members of Grace United Methodist Church in Gainesville provided books to the children who attended the church's Christmas day dinner. The meal, which was open to the public, was held for the first time in 2003 and boasted an attendance of 300 in 2004. In addition to meals served at the church, between 50 and 60 meals were delivered to the homeless in the area. The remaining food was donated to the St. Francis House in Gainesville.

David Kirk, director of evangelism and community outreach for the church, said members decided to start a community meal because so many people don't have family nearby to share the special day. He said serving such a large number of people was possible because Grace church combined with nearby Bartley Temple United Methodist Church, whose members went to Grace church and volunteered there throughout the day.

"A lot of people who volunteered brought their families and said it was the best Christmas they had had," Kirk said. "I think people enjoy sharing with the sense of a larger family."

GAINESVILLLE — Guests from the Salvation Army join Santa for dinner Christmas day at Grace United Methodist Church's community dinner. Photo by David Kirk, Photo #05-0133.

Many did experience sharing with a larger, more diverse family after the church extended an invitation to the international students at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Since many of the students were unable to travel to their respective countries, the church was a place for the 75 students to celebrate the day.

"The community meal really fills a big need," Kirk said.

The Older Adult Ministry team at First United Methodist Church, Deltona, has been filling a need in its community for years with its annual Christmas dinner. The church provides the meat, and members prepare the side dishes. While there is no charge for the meal, any funds received are donated to the church's soup kitchen, "Our Father's Table."

Katherine Hahl, chairwoman of the ministry team and a charter member of the church, said about 35 people attended.

Hahl said she started the dinner 16 years ago because it seemed like the right thing to do. The church also provides a free community Thanksgiving meal, with any proceeds received benefiting the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

"I never plan a meal - it just works out," said Hahl, who has been a member of the church for 40 years. "I'm glad we do it because I just feel that it fills a need. Some of the people who come, their spouses are gone, and with other people, their children don't live here. The dinner provides a place to come where people are welcome."

GAINESVILLLE — Children attending the community dinner provided Christmas day by Grace United Methodist Church here enjoy time with Santa, better known as the Rev. Dennis Heiberg, the church's pastor. Photo by David Kirk, Photo #05-0134.

Middleburg United Methodist Church in Jacksonville also created a welcoming place Christmas day through its second annual "Community Christmas Dinner." Created out a sense of duty of sharing God's love, the church worked to make sure the homeless, as well as the lonely, had a place to go for good food and fellowship.

Sandra Wilson, chairwoman of the event, said 122 people attended. She said the church began providing the meal two years ago because members realized many people are alone during the holidays.

"It's a wonderful and nice thing to be able to provide this to the community," she said. "And we don't just serve the meal. People go around and visit with one another, like family. We want it to be warm and comfortable when people come here."

Despite a low turnout due to bad weather, Wilson said there was no shortage of people willing to volunteer. She said the church ran two shifts of volunteers during the two-hour meal to accommodate everyone who wanted to serve others.

Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Clearwater also provided a Christmas dinner. Although it originally began as a meal for the homeless, the church decided to open it to the public. More than 200 people attended. Volunteers also delivered meals to homebound residents, and the church provided blankets, clothing, shoes and toys to people who needed those items.

The Rev. Valerie Hattery, pastor of Mulberry United Methodist Church, said her church decided to serve others by doing something they have never done - adopting three neighboring elementary schools and providing gifts to children in need. She said the church worked with guidance counselors at the school to find children who were likely to have a bleak Christmas.

Hattery said the church placed 42 angels on its Christmas tree and marveled each week as gifts were piled underneath it.

"This was our first time to do it," said Hattery, adding the church will do it again this Christmas. "It seemed like a natural thing to do. This was our response to God's gift of his son by giving a gift to those in need."

Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Miami decided to reach an often forgotten segment of its community by sponsoring a special breakfast Dec. 18 for more than 30 sick and shut-in members of the church. Volunteers brought their guests to the church for food, fellowship and prayer and to receive fruit baskets provided by church auxiliaries. The church also held a community meal later that day that was attended by more than 200 guests, and the church's Exodus Program (12 Steps with Jesus) held a Christmas dinner the next day targeting the homeless. About 60 people participated.

Joann Brookins, Exodus Program coordinator, has provided dinner for the homeless every Sunday for five years and said this year the meal included a special Christmas program. She routinely pays for the weekly meals out of her own pocket.

"I don't mind. God has really been a blessing to me," Brookins said.

Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Jacksonville also provided a pre-Christmas meal Dec. 14 for senior citizens in its community and gave a variety of gifts to six low-income families in the area with children.

Other churches reached out to their communities by providing food baskets, Christmas parties with gifts for low-income children and families, and Christmas gift shoeboxes for needy children throughout the world through Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse Project. Some also participated in the Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, providing gifts to children who have a parent in prison. Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Lakeland had a different kind of tree, a Christmas Outreach Tree, on which a candy cane was placed for every $5 collected for outreach ministries.

Other churches provided Christmas stores that enabled children to select gifts for family members. Christ United Methodist Church in Gainesville helped 28 families with 70 children through its store, and Ocklawaha United Methodist Church invited 56 area children to its store, distributing extra gifts to a low-income retirement community Christmas day.


This article relates to Outreach.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.