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At Grace Lutheran Church, A Big Helping Of Fellowship On Christmas Eve

By MARA LEE

December 25, 2010

In the basement of an Asylum Hill Lutheran church, chafing dishes full of macaroni and cheese, roasted potatoes, turkey with onions and apples, carrots and sauerkraut, and lemon chicken were readied as darkness fell, and the hosts nervously waited.

Grace Lutheran had never had a Christmas Eve dinner before, and though church members had put a notice in the neighborhood newsletter and passed out fliers at a neighborhood food pantry and medical clinic, they didn't know who would come.

More than 100 people attended fewer than the 400 they had cooked for, but enough to have at least a few diners at every table in the social hall. About two-thirds were not members of the church.

"It's just wonderful to see," said Mavis Smith, a member of Grace Lutheran Church for more than 30 years. She baked four cranberry nut loaves for the festivities. "God has blessed us," she said, "and we are here to help the less fortunate."

The dinner wasn't conceived as a soup kitchen, and that wasn't the atmosphere. The church, which has about 150 members, is integrated, and the mix of guests was diverse, too young and old, middle class, working class and poor, black and white. Some guests came to support friends who attend the church. Some came because they live in the neighborhood. Others came because they saw a flier at the food pantry.

One Hartford man who was eating and chatting usually works Friday and Saturday nights, driving a cab, but there would be no customers on Christmas Eve. He'll spend Christmas with a cousin in Bristol, his hometown.

"A friend of mine in AA told me about it," said Dave, the cab driver. "I thought I'd take advantage of a good dinner."

Dave planned to follow the dinner with a visit to an all-night Alcoholics Anonymous event. "Christmas is an emotionally difficult time," he said. "I think it is for a lot of people."

When the whole world is telling you it should be the most wonderful time of the year, but you're not feeling joyful, it makes you feel twice as bad, he said. But he said eating at the church was lifting his spirits.

Phyllis and Chad Thompson's daughters, 6 and 7 years old, were handing out handmade Christmas cards they'd worked on for weeks to everyone in the hall. Chad played the violin while another congregant played guitar and sang.

"We don't have any family here in New England," Phyllis Thompson said. "It's a way of sharing the holiday season."

She considered the dinner a success. The Thompsons, who drive down from Massachusetts to worship in Hartford, joined Grace Lutheran nine years ago.

Elijah Rogers sat with several friends as he ate and listened to the Christmas carols. He liked the music (he plays guitar), and he was enthusiastic about the home cooking. "It's like fine dining," he said, a bright smile on his face.

Rogers lives in Hartford and won't head down to see his family in New York until New Year's Eve. If his friend hadn't invited him, "I probably would've been by myself in the house," he said.

Joe Steca, who learned about the dinner through the Loaves and Fishes food pantry, said he might not have eaten at all on Christmas Eve if he hadn't seen the flier. "I was out of food," he said.

The church plans to hold another fellowship dinner on Jan. 14 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Sue Carey, one of the organizers and a two-year member of the church, said they hope some of the visitors will end up joining the congregation. "You have something to offer us," she said, is how she thinks of the dinner guests. "It would be a mutual sharing."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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