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Parish Christmas dinners live out synod’s call for closeness to people alone or in need

People enjoy a holiday dinner at Queen of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church in Jackson, Mich. (OSV News photo/courtesy Miraculous Medal Catholic Church)

STERLING, Va. (OSV News) — The idea, Katie Kirkland said, came to her while she was sitting at Christmas Mass in the warmth and light of the soaring sanctuary of Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in Sterling: How many people would be alone that holiday, without a meal or any companionship? And what could she do about it?

“We’re all here together sharing a meal — our Eucharistic meal — as a family,” Kirkland recalled thinking. “And parishes are open. Why couldn’t we have a dinner?”

This year, the Virginia parish’s Community Christmas Day Dinner will welcome guests of all ages for the fifth time. Over 450 were served in 2022, with deliveries to some 60 homebound people. There’s never a charge — and while the numbers seem to increase by about 100 attendees each year, Kirkland said there’s always enough of everything.

“The Community Christmas Dinner is an opportunity for anyone in any circumstances to have a warm, inviting, and friendly place to be on Christmas Day,” said Father J.D. Jaffe, pastor of Christ the Redeemer. “Our parish hall is transformed into a well-decorated community home with live Christmas music, games for the kids, and family-style seating. Each person that comes in is met with a warm embrace and shown the dignity that each of them deserves.”

Greeters guide invitees to their tables, where meals are served on china dishes. There are generous servings of brisket, ribs, pork, rice, potatoes and greens — accompanied by homemade desserts — and leftovers are donated so nothing goes to waste.

“There are so many people who spend Christmas alone, and it is painful,” Kirkland said. “People are alone for all different kinds of reasons.”

Donations of all sizes enable the celebration, which also includes gift bags for each guest and toys for children. The first year of the dinner, however, there simply wasn’t enough money for toys. As Kirkland canvassed the local area, she visited a veterans’ group. After her flier was enthusiastically received, she was asked: “We just had a big event, and we have all these toys left over. Could you use them for your dinner?”

Kirkland admitted she started crying in gratitude to God: “It’s things like that, and the people he brings together.”

Hundreds of volunteers — some of whom live alone themselves — ensure logistics run smoothly.

“Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, more than being materially poor, it’s that sense of abandonment, that loneliness — that kind of poverty is actually more painful than not having things,” said Kirkland. “There are people that come here in need, that don’t have the means to have a meal. But it is primarily to address that loneliness, and abandonment, and not being seen.”

While the idea of a community Christmas dinner isn’t novel, dinners that actually take place on Dec. 25 are perhaps rarer. Quite naturally, most people plan to spend the day with family and friends — which means an even greater sense of isolation on the holiday itself for those without connections or kin.

A survey by Online-Solitaire.com published in December projected at least 19 million Americans will spend Christmas alone — but also that 88% of people attending dinner with family said they would also invite a neighbor who would otherwise be alone to join them.

“We aim to reach out to as many as possible who are home alone,” said Jerry Mitchell, chair of the Fort Atkinson Community Christmas Dinner in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which will serve its neighbors for the 35th year in 2023. “As our Holy Father keeps saying, we have to go to the extremities. They can easily feel abandoned.”

Hosted by St. Joseph Catholic Church, the free, seated dinner of turkey, ham and all the accompaniments feeds about 400 guests. Carryout is available, as well as delivery by a squad of 25 drivers who distribute boxed dinners to the surrounding area — including to firefighters and police personnel on duty.

“Our drivers are going to their houses and wishing them a happy Christmas, and giving them a meal,” Mitchell told OSV News. “If that’s the only other person they see Christmas Day, then praise God; at least they’ve seen another human being.”

Almost 100 volunteers in a variety of roles — Mitchell jokes dishwashers are “always the hardest to recruit” — prep far in advance.

“We literally get entire families who spend three or four hours with us,” Mitchell said. “Mom and dad and the four kids … They’ll all come and join in as a family. Which is obviously the parents showing the kids (that) you give back,” he noted. “That’s what Christmas is about: you give back.”

Several churches in the area — Methodist, Congregational, Lutheran and non-denominational — partner in the effort, with donations from both businesses and individuals.

“We support those who do not have a proper Christmas dinner,” Mitchell said. “And that to me is the essence of what this is about. It is the committee, with the help of all our volunteers, giving back to the community — at the time that we celebrate God’s gift to mankind.”

It’s also, Mitchell emphasized, an occasion for spiritual growth.

“For me personally, the Christmas dinner is an opportunity to try and live up to Christ’s message in Mt. 25:35-36,” Mitchell commented, invoking the Gospel verse that begins, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat …”

“I try to live my life by that verse,” said the native London suburbanite who has lived in the U.S. some 28 years. “May God help me.”

Following the October conclusion of the Catholic Church’s first global session of the Synod on Synodality in Rome, the synod’s synthesis report took special note of the poor and marginalized.

“Many people experience a condition of loneliness that is often close to abandonment,” the report stated. “The elderly and the sick ill [sic] are often invisible in society. We encourage parishes and Christian communities to be close to them and listen to them.”

In Jackson, Michigan, Estelle Clary will, for the 25th consecutive year, listen to her 300-plus guests at Queen of the Miraculous Medal Parish’s “Community-Wide Christmas Dinner.”

While she initially thought to volunteer only once, participation eventually became a family tradition.

The free Christmas Day dinner at the parish features turkey and trimmings served family style on porcelain at linen-bedecked tables. Guests are greeted at the door with both a name tag and boutonnière. Live entertainment, a raffle and a visit from Santa Claus complement the festive atmosphere.

At least 70 area churches are involved in some way, with 50% of volunteers drawn from other Christian churches. Young and old pitch in, with students from elementary school to high school making placemats, raising funds and otherwise assisting.

Two handicapped accessible buses from the local school district run routes for at least 40 disabled attendees.

While 150 volunteers serve on Dec. 25, Clary estimates close to 1,000 volunteers are required to make it all work.

“It’s pretty awesome to see all that — and just to experience the joy,” Clary reflected, “and get to experience what Christ really is.”

Her pastor, Father Timothy MacDonald, agreed.

“This is ‘church’ in the 21st century,” Father MacDonald said. “These dinners bring together the poor and the well-to-do, the lonely and the lively, those who have no one to celebrate with, and those who have nothing with which to celebrate,” he said. “In a season of giving, so many give of their time, talent and treasure to brighten the holidays of strangers, reminding us that we share the greatest gift of Christmas — Jesus!”

The dinner has also reevangelized those who turned away from the Catholic Church, Clary shared.

“One of the individuals that used to do our entertainment pulled me aside and said, ‘I want you to know, Estelle, that I had walked away from the church,” Clary shared. “But because of these dinners, I’ve come back.”

For Clary, dignity and love are recurring themes.

“A lot of individuals that are homeless don’t get any respect,” she said. “And they get it at our dinner.”

Each guest is given a meal to take with them, while a local shelter benefits from leftovers. And they’ll do it all again at Easter.

In nearby Lansing, Michigan, about 40 miles from Jackson, St. Gerard Parish’s free Christmas community dinner will serve some 250 guests “who would be alone or possibly without a meal,” said Deacon Jim Corder.

The annual Christmas event began in 1987, after parishioners reflected on their outreach activities.

“We did a lot of things to help people,” said Deacon Corder, “but what about gathering them together for a meal?”

The parishioner-driven dinner — which engages 100-plus volunteers, and is reprised at Thanksgiving and Easter — begins preparations months in advance. On Giving Tuesday, more than $6,000 was raised for it.

Between a fleet of drivers and a local bus company, a ride is guaranteed to all who want it — whether homebound, residing at a facility or group home, or even living in their car.

“After Thanksgiving, we received some very heartfelt notes,” shared Deacon Corder. “We continue to hear stories about how nice it was. That’s why you do it — because people are fed by that. Not just fed by giving them food, but that sense of community.”

Can ham and turkey and a bit of company help heal wounded souls? Deacon Corder is convinced it can.

“We show folks dignity, and we show them that we do care — unfortunately, we can’t make the world a better place throughout the world,” he said. “But right here where we live, we can make it a little brighter.”

Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.

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