At Thanksgiving, St. Stephen United Church of Christ in New Holland, Pa. is the little congregation that could. This church of less than 100 attendees will feed four times that many people in two hours on Thursday, Nov. 28, with free food and a side of fellowship.
"We are proud to offer a good, hot, home cooked meal, for free, with plenty of companionship to anybody who wants to come," said Donna Burkholder, chair of the church Thanksgiving committee. We love people, so we do the work and hope for the best."
This year will mark 20 years that St. Stephen has been offering a Thanksgiving meal to the community, and Burkholder has the preparations down to a science. She took over the planning process in 2012, and with notes in hand began this year's meal preparations on Oct. 8. Most of the food she says is donated by local businesses — which "are always gracious to do it again."
"The 40 to 42 turkeys are donated by congregational members, and four or five women roast these turkeys at home — I have number six in my oven at this point," Burkholder said.
Since dinner guests receive all of the traditional favorites — turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans, cranberry and apple sauce, with roll/butter and assorted desserts — it's a lot of food to assemble. But Burkholder has it all accounted for.
"Folks who are baking desserts get them to us by Wednesday, others donated by bakeries. The potatoes are donated by one of our local grocery stores, the stuffing — enough to feed 500 people — is made and donated by another store. Five cases of green beans come from a local restaurant. Coffee, applesauce, cranberry sauce, milk — even the take out containers are donated," Burkholder said.
"It's endless. But it just falls out of the sky at me. I know it's God's hands working — it's like, 'Heads up Donna, here it comes.'"
Even the local florist gets involved and makes center pieces. "It's just nice," Burkholder said. "People just help."
Last year, the church dished up 450 meals between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and they expect to do the same amount on Thursday. "In two hours: that's a lot of meals, so I don't see how we can do more at this point," Burkholder said. "But we don't extend our hours because we want our volunteers to be able to spend the rest of the day with their families."
The church office is already fielding calls from a lot of folks who want to get their order in early, said Charlene Good, office administrator.
"We deliver the meals, or we go pick people up and bring them here. This week we are swamped, but I just love it because I just think it’s just a neat opportunity and people appreciate this so much," Good said. "This woman I was talking today was almost in tears, checking to make sure ... she said she was so glad we were doing this dinner again."
"We committee people start at 6:30 or 7 a.m., and anybody can come — it's free," Burkholder said. "We have a lot of people who take exception to that, so we take donations, but it's truly free. We ask that you sit at a table and you are served — there's no standing in line. If people are lonely and they just want to talk, we have people to sit and talk with you. We do get a line for a free hot meal, so we ask people to have patience. I try to do as little as possible that day — a lot of us have worked hard to get up to that point. It takes quite a few people to pull this off ... we have plenty of volunteers."
"There's a lot of laughter there. We also hear some really tough stories — that what's we are here for."
When the last meal is served, the church shares the leftovers with other facilities that will accept the food, so nothing goes to waste.
"This is what [God] wants us to do for each other."