“Are you ready to eat?”
It is not a question everyone gets to answer each day, but it was what dinner guests heard Friday as they arrived at the State College Presbyterian Church.
And for people like John Murray, the meal meant the world.
“I’m homeless,” he said. “I haven’t been home to eat Christmas dinner with my family in over 16 years. I’ve been homeless for two years.”
From the outside, it would be impossible to guess that inside the church, 400 people, mostly strangers, were packed into two large rooms, sitting at tables adorned with red and green ribbons and candles, eating, laughing and smiling at one another on one of the most celebrated days of the year.
“This is a good time to be in the church. This is what the season is truly about, a celebration of our Lord Jesus Christ,” said Troy Alesi, a volunteer with the church.
Regardless of creed, the church opened its doors to the entire community Friday afternoon.
According to a press release, “the traditional meal is intended for people who find themselves in State College over the holidays for whatever reason, students and families, internationals who may not be able to travel great distances over the holiday. The dinner provides a home-like atmosphere to enjoy a community meal and entertainment.”
“We all know how this time of the year creates loneliness. It’s worth it to cook 17 turkeys, it’s worth it to bake 30 mashed potato casseroles, it’s worth it to give these people a place to be,” said event organizer Greg Elliott.
400+ The number of dinners served at State College Presbyterian on Christmas Day
17 Turkeys roasted
30 Pans of mashed potatoes baked
The church has opened the doors and filled the tables for about 25 years, joining members of the community, both volunteers and those in need, with a good meal on Christmas Day.
“There’s a good chance they could have been home alone and instead they are here with us,” Elliott said.
There's a good chance they could have been home alone and instead they are here with us.
Greg Elliott, event organizer
The Presbyterian church on Beaver Avenue is also hosting individuals without a home, for the next two weeks, with the Out Of The Cold Initiative.
“I’ve been sleeping here the past week,” Murray said.
Murray is an Irish-born immigrant who’s lived in Ohio and Texas. Now he’s in Pennsylvania with no family and said, “I have no one, but today I got the chance to enjoy a meal. I haven’t had a Christmas dinner in over six years.”
“Years ago there were fewer homeless people and they used to give vouchers for hotels over the holiday. There’s more of a need now, so they’re staying here with us,” said Susan Sanders, a volunteer for the event.
Sanders served as hostess Friday, and created a home-like environment for guests, greeting everyone with a warm smile.
The meal was staffed by volunteers like Alesi, Sanders and Elliott, who work the event and then enjoy sharing a dinner along with the guests and their families.
When asked why he does this, Elliott said, “We want to feed people. This is their home for the day. Some come every year. If you sit and watch these folks smile and enjoy one another. ... At least for one day a year, this is their place to go.”
Their families feel the same.
“I love doing this. I don’t know what else I would do on Christmas Day,” said Lauren Elliott, Greg’s daughter. “It’s not people just looking for a meal, it’s people that want to help, people that want to be around other people, instead of being home by themselves.”