Community Thanksgiving Dinner
BRADENTON -- Some churches struggle to find their role in the community.
Mt. Gilead Seventh Day Adventist Church has no such identity crisis, its pastor and members said Sunday.
For the last decade or so, the church has dedicated itself to the needy who live around its building at 1803 13th St. W., Bradenton.
On Sunday, 1,300 of those neighbors, including about 50 homeless people, came to the church grounds for Mt. Gilead's annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner. They ate chicken right out of a smoker grilled by Paul "BBQ Boss" Hendricks of Palmetto, as well as bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, beans and rice, curry chicken, yams, green beans and mixed vegetables. Diners also received rolls, cake, pineapple, watermelon and shredded lettuce and tomato salad with dressing.
Everything was served by smiling church members and students from Southwest Florida Technical Institute in Bradenton.
"I live on the street," Tony Riddle, a homeless man said, as he took his food to a table Sunday. "I wish there were more places like this."
Besides the food, Riddle also got a homeless care bag of toothpaste, soap, mouthwash and washcloths.
Eric Williams, who also is homeless, felt comfortable talking about his life Sunday among friends.
"Being homeless is hard for me because I have gone to prison, and now I am turned down for housing and jobs," Williams shared. "I think that's bull."
"What touches me is that everyone of the homeless have a story," said Naidine DeHere-Adams, the church's community services director. "They could be any of us. I try to treat everyone I meet the way I would like to be treated. Whatever size the bag is, I try to give it with love and give it with dignity."
Seventh Day Adventists keep the Sabbath holy, which means they refrain from any secular activity from sunset Friday through sunset Saturday, DeHere-Adams said.
"We don't work, and we avoid secular activity on the Sabbath," said DeHere-Adams said of her church, which meets Saturdays and not Sundays.
Church members address the homeless as "Sir" or "Ma'am" because "they are my brothers, and I am my brother's keeper," DeHere-Adams said.
The attitude of respect seemed to come from the top down.
The Rev. Pierre Francois told the crowd Sunday: "I want to thank everyone for coming, all the volunteers, all who have come for some of the services we have to offer. We are Mt. Gilead Seventh Day Adventist Church, and we love this community. Now, for the best part. Everything we have to offer is yours, and we pray God's blessing on all of your families."
Francois was not kidding.
Mt. Gilead has a food pantry for the needy the third Sunday of every month, and it hosted that as well Sunday.
Volunteers gave out 65 to 70 boxes of food to feed 240 families along with 50 care bags to the homeless, like Riddle,
"We started this because we want to give back to the community," said Claudia Henry, a dedicated church member whose entire family is involved with the church. "We want to let people know what we are all about."
Many said there was a certain feeling about Mt. Gilead and its people that permeated the day, a sweet spirit brought to life by music as well as smiles.
The crowd clapped mightily for The Pathfinders, a group of church youths who, together, comprise a drum line and color guard. Their director is Ernest Calhoun Jr.
A Mt. Gilead praise band comprised of Christina Williamson, Eaton Bell, Annette Ellis, Leoni Williamson and Claudia Henry kept a Gospel beat. Michael Henry played keyboard and his sister, Monique Henry, captured memories as church photographer.
"Excellent, beautiful, absolutely beautiful," church neighbor Charles Lipscomb said of how church members served the needy with food for the stomach and music for the soul.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.