Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009
By Shelley Grieshop
Rockford church offers free meal
Christmas Day dinner
  Without a budget, a venue or cooks, a Rockford church embarked on an idea to feed - at no cost - anyone in need of a meal or companionship on Christmas Day.
That was four years ago and much has changed. That first year in 2005, volunteers nearly outnumbered diners; last year officials at the Rockford United Methodist Church served more than 360 piping hot plates of turkey, dressing and all the fixings.
"Each year the project grows, still offering a free meal to anyone who walks in the door," says Susan Sheppard, the church's office manager.
This year's event is 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday at the Community Building at Shanes Park.
Besides the traditional fare, tables are lined with delicious homemade desserts made by parishioners - some who cannot attend the event but wish to support it anyway, Sheppard says. To serve hundreds of people in a short period of time, the church solicits help from about 95 to 100 volunteers.
The idea first arose late in 2005 when the church's administrative board contemplated how best to meet the needs of hungry families and lonely people during the holiday season. Their goal was to "share Christ's love on Christmas Day," Sheppard says.
The board wanted to serve a sit-down dinner to residents in the community, even though there was no budget for such a venture. Questions were immediately raised: Who would prepare the food, set the table and get the word out?
Someone suggested giving gifts to each child present but there was no money set aside for that either. Early on they feared they might muster up the resources only to discover no one would show up.
Like a Christmas miracle, the community building became available, cooks and decorators volunteered, and residents arrived looking for fellowship and food.
After the debut, church officials decided they would step up the call and reach out to more "potential guests." They encouraged those with family members home for the holidays or out-of-town guests to join the celebration.
"For all family members to be seated at a decorated table and served a meal was a gift to some who might ordinarily be cooking and washing dishes in the kitchen," Sheppard adds.
Celebrating Jesus' birth with others is a gift church members now look forward to each year, she says.
"The biggest blessing comes from serving and seeing hungry families, empty-nesters and extended families enjoying the holiday together," Sheppard says.
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