The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to many alarming statistics this year—among them are reports showing food insecurity in the United States at an all-time high, with 1 in 8 households not having enough to eat. Food insecurity can be an especially harsh reality for families at this time of year, the sweepingly called “holiday season” whose celebrations often emphasize large, festive meals.
For years many ELCA ministries nationwide have coordinated efforts to help families in their communities celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with a full meal. Although plans this year might be altered for virus safety precautions, their commitment continues.
In Richmond, Va., Brenda Barnes has been at the helm of Epiphany Lutheran Church’s Thanksgiving ministry for five years, but her congregation’s history of distributing the meals dates back to at least 1969.
Every October, Barnes calls for donations in the worship bulletin, asking people to consider giving provisions for families in the community that might otherwise not be able to afford the festive meal.
Barnes and fellow members of Epiphany’s community service team hand out grocery bags with shopping lists attached: a family-size box of instant potatoes, two boxes of corn muffin mix, canned green beans, a jar of turkey gravy, stuffing mix, canned cranberry sauce and a box of brownie mix.
Parishioners also give monetary donations for gift cards that go in each meal box so families can buy their own turkey or another food item.
“I’ve never been involved in a more giving and generous congregation,” Barnes said. “If there is a need, our church members just jump right in.”
A week before Thanksgiving, team members assemble the meal boxes and deliver them to two local organizations that distribute them to families they serve. Last year, Epiphany members donated enough items to provide 101 Thanksgiving meals.
“You hate to think of anyone who may not have a meal on Thanksgiving, of all days,” Barnes said. “We will take extra precautions this year and might not have the normal crowd putting it together, but we’ll still get it together.”
When Ruth Manchester became the parish nurse at St. Luke Lutheran in Silver Spring, Md., in 2001, she inherited the role of coordinating the congregation’s Thanksgiving meal ministry. The congregation had long collected a set list of items to give to area families. When one man questioned the items in his bag, Manchester realized that the food they collected wasn’t appropriate for the people they were serving.
“We want to meet the needs and wants of the clients and their families,” she said. “So I solicited the congregation to bring in fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and canned goods, and then we could set them all out and guests could serve themselves and pick what they wish for their Thanksgiving meal.”
Like Epiphany’s congregation, members of St. Luke also donate money for gift cards. Manchester said they serve about 70 families every year and the whole congregation gets involved in organizing the annual program.
A time to care
Christ Lutheran Church in Blaine, Minn., has a long-standing tradition of organizing Christmas baskets that include food items for a holiday meal and gifts for each member of a family.
“Every year I hear the sentiment, ‘I know what it’s like to be in a situation where you can’t stretch your money,’ said Suzy Schultz, director of outreach and communications at Christ. “The congregation realizes what it’s like if you don’t have someone who can help you, and they have a real heart for helping their neighbor.”
Schultz works with community partners to identify families. Parishioners can participate by purchasing specific gifts for families, the details of which Schultz displays by hanging tags on a tree around Thanksgiving, or by donating items off a food list.
When everything is collected, the items are placed in boxes that have been painted with images of Christmas decorations—a project the congregation completes every year as part of its “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday activities. Members then deliver the boxes, which usually number around 100 every year.
“We just feel like Christmas is a good time to share that people are loved and say somebody cares about you, so we put this together for you,” Schultz said.
“I’m sure there are people who think that giving a Christmas basket to someone isn’t going to change their life and it’s not going to change the world, but you know what? It could. It might just be that saving thing that [makes] someone say, ‘Wow, somebody cared enough to deliver this to me and my family, so that must mean we’re worthwhile.’”
Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey (LSMNJ) works with congregations around the state to do donation drives for holidays and the start of the school year. Every fall, congregations collect items for Thanksgiving meals and deliver them to LSMNJ affordable-housing sites for families. The social service organization also coordinates delivery of individual hot Thanksgiving meals to people at its senior housing sites.
Beth Gebhart, LSMNJ director of community partnering and advocacy, said participating in the Thanksgiving meal ministry has been an entry point for congregations to build relationships with the people the organization serves.
“Everybody wants a chance to celebrate,” she said. “Everybody wants an opportunity to know that somebody else is remembering them and thinking about them. A lot of the folks we serve in this way, LSM is supporting them in their house. We’re giving them a place to live and we want to make the place they have to live more than a house—it’s a home.
“Providing those means of celebration and knowing someone is thinking about you is what makes it a home.”