The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

December 28, 2012

Hot meals and warm hearts at Christmas

By Jason O'Boyd, Staff Writer

Friday, December 28, 2012 — The inside of First Lutheran Church in Albemarle resembled a beehive of activity.

Martha Sue Hall was pointing people to where lunch was served while, almost at the same time, telling others who asked where they could pick up plates to take home.

Her son, Murphy, was shuffling back and forth, delivering metal sheets of baked cookies, cakes, pies and other goodies donated by Shawn Oke, who owns Albemarle Sweet Shop.

Down the hall, Hoy Lanning was directing volunteers who just stopped by to help while keeping an eye on the serving line. That serving line was occupied by people such as J.C. Boone and Karen Cranford, who placed turkey, ham, sweet potato casserole, green beans, cranberry sauce and other items on the plates of those in line.

There was no shortage of things to do at the 23rd annual Community Christ-mas Dinner, held at First Lutheran Church in Albemarle. And while the mountain of activity was almost too much for one person to handle, together it resembled a controlled chaos — all with the idea of distributing not only physical food for those who came but also spiritual food and the Christmas spirit for those seeking each.

"“ think it’s a good thing to do at Christmas,” said Murphy, who graduated from N.C. State just 10 days earlier. “We are giving back to the community and helping others, which is a positive thing.

“It’s stays pretty busy for a couple of hours, and there’s a lot of prep that goes into it through the host church. It comes together nicely, and I think we serve about 1,500 people. I look forward to doing it every year.”

The annual Christmas dinner is a culmination of churches in the downtown area as well as numerous people who volunteer their time who may not even attend these churches. Meals are prepared for anyone who wanted to attend, regardless of income, social standing or religion.

Anyone who came could enjoy the meal in the large dining hall at the church. One of the church’s driveways doubled as a pick-up spot while others went inside to grab a meal to take home. Still other meals were delivered to shut-ins for each of those churches while over 50 others were delivered to firemen and police officers on duty during Christmas.

“The meals on wheels, we get a list from (each church),” said Sarah Bivins, who co-chaired this year’s event along with Lanning. “People that are homebound, those are the ones we do deliveries for.

“We personally did not have to organize the deliveries. Each church will submit a list and they also provide drivers. Then there’s also people who deliver to the firemen and police who are on duty today, 54 or so.

“Kind of the purpose of this, it’s not necessarily for homeless people. It’s for fellowship … if you are home alone or sitting at home on Christmas alone.”

Lanning said the churches form a committee each year that makes sure everything is in place, from the amount of food needed to making sure there are volunteers who help with distribution.

And it goes further than that.

Harris Teeter provided the plastic bags for each of the take-out meals. Crook Motor Company provided trucks to store the food, one for items such as hams and turkeys and another for things such as canned goods.

“We started collecting food this year on the 22nd,” Lanning said. “Then we collected more (Monday), then a lot of people came in with perishables (Christmas) morning.

“People sign up for bringing things and the community comes together and brings food. It works out really well. Then we have a lot of volunteers come back at 2 o’clock and do clean-up, which is the less glamorous part of it.”

Cranford attends the Lutheran church and is originally from Minnesota. She was participating for the first time in the event.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like this to help people,” Cranford said. “I’m from Minnesota and normally I go home, but this year we were just not able to go.

“Being away from my family, this was something I could feel good about and have a nice Christmas day. I had no idea how crowded it would be. But it’s wonderful, it’s really rewarding.”

Martha said this was the 14th year that she and her children have helped. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Albemarle and got involved just through word of mouth at her church, which has hosted the event in the past.

“Volunteers, that’s a critical point,” she said. “When we came in here bringing the dressing at 9:30 (a.m. on Christmas), there were folks putting applesauce and cranberry sauce and pineapple into individual to-go containers. That takes forever. So we had an assembly line … three different assembly lines going.

“But it’s the food for the body and food for the soul and food for the spirit of the season. That’s what this is all about. The cool kind of thing, the to-go plates will have a note, hand-written card by some of the children of the churches.”

So much goes into making it all happen that things are bound to go wrong in the process. The group ran out of sweet tea and had to go and get items to make more. The sweet potatoes were very popular, so more may be needed next year when Annunciation Catholic Church takes over responsibilities in 2013 after First Lutheran’s two-year run ends.

But the smiles on the faces of those who receive the meals and the message — whether at the church or within the community — far outweighs the three-or-so hours of work on Christmas and the weeks of preparation that goes into it.

“I think it’s delivering the message that maybe we need in this country right now,” Lanning said. “God says we’re here to serve and that’s what we should be doing.

“Right now, in the Christmas season, it’s the best way we can show the Christmas spirit … have the church and the Christian community come out and provide a meal and a service for people, for everybody.”