When you know you’ll be feeding almost a thousand people on Christmas Day, you start preparing early.
The smell of turkey had already begun to permeate throughout Faith United Methodist Church in Bellefonte on Monday, as about 700 pounds of meat needs to be cooked for Christmas Day. Today, about 100 loaves of bread will be turned into stuffing, and later comes the green bean casserole.
What started as a humble attempt to serve a few in the community has blossomed into a 200-plus person operation to serve hundreds.
On Christmas Day, Faith United will host its 17th annual free community Christmas Day dinner. Open to the public, the church prepares free meals for anyone looking to enjoy a nice dinner on the holiday.
“Our desire is to not have people home alone on Christmas Day eating by themselves,” Pastor Andy Morgan said. “We wanted to provide a place for people to come together on Christmas Day if they didn’t have a family or anywhere else to go.”
Growth has been steady over the years, Morgan said, from serving 300 to 400 meals a few years ago to serving about a thousand now. The church has had to streamline the process and reorganize to handle the load.
Coordinator Michael Brand said about 500 will dine in at the church, with another 200 takeout meals and about 250 deliveries.
Food donations, Morgan said, are welcome, particularly pies. More than 100 pies are needed for the dinner, and the congregation signs up to provide them.
All pies are accepted, he said, from store-bought to old-fashioned homemade. The congregation also provides a dozen angel food cakes and 36 dozen cookies.
When it comes to the meal itself, Morgan said it’s easier to buy and prepare food in bulk than to ask for individual donations. Donors are encouraged to provide money to purchase food rather than making food themselves.
“People were bringing in individual cans of green beans,” he said, “and we were opening 25 cans. Now we just have to open two because we get the industrial size.”
The Christmas meal will be a traditional menu with turkey or ham if visitors eat in the church, he said, or turkey only for those who want takeout or delivery. Takeouts and deliveries begin at about 3 p.m., with the main dinner running from 4 to 6 p.m.
The fellowship hall is decorated as a restaurant with a waitstaff to take orders and serve the food, he said.
“We don’t want it to feel like a church dinner,” he said. “We want it to feel like you’re somewhere special.”
The dinner attracts all types, from those who are simply looking to help to large families who don’t have the room in their own homes.
“Last year, a family of 15 to 20 came,” Morgan said. “They said they can’t all fit around the table at home, so they came here.”
It’s about creating an environment where people can connect, Brand said, because they never know who is going to walk through the door.
“That’s really the purpose,” he said. “We call it a Christmas dinner, but it’s really not about the food.”
Visitors also make donations on Christmas Day, Morgan said, as some want to pay for their meal or show some token of gratitude. The church decided a few years ago that any donation made on Christmas Day would go to help people somewhere in the world.
Last year, he said, donations went to help typhoon victims in the Philippines. This year, donations will help Ebola victims in Sierra Leone, where the church is connected to the bishop of that nation.