Volunteers and residents gather to pray before the free Thanksgiving dinners are distributed at Beth-El Temple Church of Christ. (AFRO Archives Photo)

By Lisa Snowden McCray
Special to the AFRO

A  little over a week before Thanksgiving, but at Beth-El Temple Church of Christ on West Rogers Avenue in Baltimore City, folks are ready.

As the holiday approaches, good Samaritans all over the city come together to feed residents who struggle to afford a Thanksgiving meal. This is the story of how Beth-El Temple and the United Way of Central Maryland put on a “Harvest of Plenty.”

Organizers say they want to distribute 4,000 Thanksgiving dinners to low-income families all over the state. From November 17-24, the food will be distributed at 22 churches and community centers all over Central Maryland

Inside Beth-El Temple, ladies (and a few men) hustle to get ready. A long cafeteria table is stocked with frozen turkeys. There is a small stage, and in front of it, bags full of fresh fruit are set in neat rows, ready to be grabbed. To the far left of the room, brown cardboard boxes are stacked high. Those boxes are packed with what is needed to feed Thanksgiving to a family of six. Inside, there is stuffing, macaroni and cheese, green beans, collard greens, cranberry sauce and biscuit mix.

Outside the church, a line snakes down the length of the building. People began to gather well before the distribution site’s 1 p.m. start time. The folks gathered are young adults, and older ones. Men and women – some with small children. Mostly black, but some white. Many of those gathered came prepared, with small shopping carts and insulated bags.

Inside the church, someone announces that it’s time for prayer – and the two groups come together for the first time.

Those helping and those gathered to be helped join hands and form a kind of oblong, flattened circle in the grass outside the building. Harriet Rivers-Chapman, a tall, slender, middle-aged black women, delivers a powerful invocation.

“Father God, we come before you humble as we know how. We thank you, God, for the hands that we are holding, we thank you God for every soul that’s in this line. We thank you for this church, God, we thank you for the doors being open, God, for those that may need, God. As they get this natural food, God, let ‘em know that they need a personal relationship with you, God.”

After the prayer, those who will be receiving the food get the details. They must go to a long table lined with church volunteers. They are organized alphabetically by last name. Go to the woman at your table, so that they can check for your name on the list (United Way required that people had to pre-register to receive the dinners), get a ticket and then proceed to the stations to pick up various parts of the meal. Then exit out the back door.

The event is organized, but it is warm and welcoming, too. Gospel music plays from a small boom box on stage. The volunteers laugh with the visitors, many of whom they already know.

Roslyn Wright, who is in charge of today’s operation, said that she’s no stranger to activities like this. The church has been working with United Way since 2009. They also host a soup kitchen for community members in need every week.

“We have a passion for people. And God says love his people, feed his people so we have that passion, we follow after Christ,” Wright said.

“It’s just a blessing because every family, everybody has a person in their family that has fell. And you pray that someone will be out there to reach for them…I just get filled when I see them come in and they’re in need and the church is here to help them. We’re just a help to the community.”

Most of the helpers at today’s event are members of the church, but a group of about seven Coppin State University students are here as well. They are nursing students in their senior year. This event is part of their final studies – in which they work closely with members of the community to help them learn about health, manage sicknesses and get access to resources.

“We’re in our community health clinical, which we take in our senior year, so we are here helping,” said Jessica Bradford. “We do a lot of community outreach working with Dr. Leola Washington. She gives us a patient, we use different Baltimore City resources in their particular communities to help with different ailments.”

Bradford said that today’s event was a chance to interact with members of the community they have already been working with so closely.

“For us, it’s more than just a grade.”