Cheese Sandwiches, Chili, Blankets, And Love.

Everyone has their own rituals/traditions for holidays that they celebrate. I mark some events with dinner at a restaurant my wife loves. Others are spent with family (Hi Bob & Pat & Pam) who have taken good care of my wife when I was shift working. Still others are spent at church, contemplating the arrival of the new year.

But my favorite tradition is the one we have on the last Saturday of December: sponsoring the Good Neighbor Meal (Don’t think too hard about the link, or what it’s called – cookie cutter website that works just fine for us. And, no: the lovely shirts on the landing page are leftovers from the original template and not for sale.)

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For several years I have been involved in either sponsoring the meal, cooking the meal, serving the meal, providing holiday gift packages, or some other aspect of it. It kind of depended on whether or not I had to work that day. This year, at long last, I was finally able to say that I am no longer a shift worker. Consequently I got to do all aspects of the meal, including scrubbing the grill and rinsing out the coffee pots (Marvin, my fabulous helper, did all the burned wreckage from the chili pots. I salute him, Brenda, Stacey, Ron, Greg, Dianne, Sandy, Tracy, and all the rest who worked so hard in the kitchen to keep it all upright and shiny! Cleanup isn’t glamorous, but it’s what makes it all go.)

Chili (prior to scorching the bottom for Marvin!)

Grilled cheese by the dozens.

The serving line

Nice vittles, eh? How do you do it for 150 guests? Well, it’s simple:

Order the blankets a month ahead of time.

Shop for the groceries on Wednesday and drop them off at the kitchen.

Friday, you go in to do the prep cooking (browning all the burger for the chili and soaking the beans) and find that your lovely friend Pamela McFadden has done all the work for you before you even arrive. Take Pam to eat Chinese at Golden Chowmein to celebrate.

Saturday you show up at the kitchen at 0715 and start the show. Ron, Dianne and Sandy show up minutes later and start busting a move. Seriously, those three worked like crazy. Everything from filling the coffee pots (Ron’s a lot stronger and younger than I am and those things are huge) to dicing the onions to put in the chili.

Beans on the boil, you do all the other stuff like getting the steam table to heat up, get the cole slaw in individual dishes, put the cupcakes on trays (Thank you, P.J. Murphy’s Bakery for the wonderful donation!), butter 300 slices of bread so you can stuff three pieces of cheese on each sandwich and brown them, heat the grill top, scrub all the pots as you go, etc.

Over the next three hours more volunteers roll in – all carefully staged. Yes, I work very hard to have different groups show up at different times. Each wave has a different task. All of those tasks are vital.

A total of 40+ volunteers showed up on Saturday. What a blessing. That many hands at work means that:

The guests are all personally welcomed and given a cup of coffee and shown to a table.

The clothing that was donated, all needed to be sorted by item type and put on the stage for people to ramble through. Not a one was left at the end of the meal! Not an insubstantial task: we had hundreds of hats, mittens, pants, coats, backpacks, and rolling carry-ons donated!

We also had 53 hand-made blankets from the third-grade classes of Forest View Elementary. They made blankets for the dinner out of a polar-fleece material. Colorful, full of love, and warm. My friend Christine Wielenski-Davis brought them all in and displayed them for our guests. (The blankets, not the third graders.) They were a huge hit. My only regret is that I didn’t score one for myself.

Blanket makers from Heaven

While all of that is going on, the men and women of my church, former coworkers, current coworkers, people I’ve met through Healing Haiti, other authors (fabulous, award-winning, writers like Brenda and Tamara!) and readers of my book, Assault on Saint Agnes, all got the serving line set up and ready to go.

A brief prayer, a briefing on how to make it all happen, and away we went.

The result? 100 people served a hot meal. Everyone got their fill. Nobody went away hungry. What’s really cool is that several of my volunteers have now asked to sponsor meals. Man, when you have a project like Good Neighbor, it’s a huge relief to get people to do that meal. Our founder, and his staff, struggle to provide every two weeks. If all the people who said they want to do a meal join in, we’ll be able to cover two whole months – only ten to go!

And, at the end of the meal, we handed out thermal blankets to each guest as our way of saying “Happy New Year!” I wondered when I chose that as our gift this year if it would match up to last year’s gift card to McDonald’s and goodie pack.

I need not have wondered. A beloved coworker told me Monday morning that he’d overheard one of our guests as he was leaving. The man had come early and gotten a blanket ahead of time. He was outside, wrapped in the blanket against the cold of the day.

I am told that he said, “This is awesome. Not the cheap stuff other people hand out. This is like you get in a hospital. This is soft and really warm!”

That was the goal: to let those guests know that we want them warm. And it comes from the soft part of our hearts where we hold them the rest of the year.

The best way I can think of to end 2016: being the hands and feet of Jesus.
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Cheese Sandwiches, Chili, Blankets, And Love. — 1 Comment