- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Churches and their volunteers are passing the plates — not to collect donations, but to feed the hungry on Thanksgiving.

Church leaders of all denominations are trying to provide food, clothing and Christmas gifts for the needy and reminding their congregations that the holidays are about helping those who are less fortunate.

“The visible work … of Christ is to help the needy,” the Rev. Ralph Rowley told the congregation Sunday at Messiah United Methodist Church in Springfield, where members continued the church’s long-standing tradition of collecting food for needy families on Thanksgiving.

During Sunday’s service, parishioners — including 200 children — carried to the altar grocery bags that included everything from cans of string beans to boxes of Cheerios. An adult helped a young boy in a wheelchair deliver his bag to the altar.

“Even the youngest children can understand that there are people who will not have food if we don’t help,” said Denise Laux, the church’s outreach missions chairman. This year, the church collected enough food to provide for 29 local families on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The church gets the names of families from Ecumenical Community Helping Others, which provides financial aid to about 1,000 families in Springfield and Burke.

Most of the food was delivered to the families after the Sunday service. The nonperishables were saved for Christmas.

“The response is amazing,” said church member Ralph Scichilone, as he sorted through mounds of food after the service.

“We get tears,” he said, his eyes welling up as he spoke about the families who receive the donations. Mr. Scichilone said he has helped with the food drive for so many years he has lost count.

Still, the efforts at Messiah United Methodist help only a small segment of families in need in the area.

Officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia estimate that churches, nonprofit agencies and other charitable groups will feed more than 10,000 families over the upcoming holidays.

Derwood Bible Church in Montgomery County will work with the Chicken Basket restaurant to serve Thanksgiving meals to about 450 needy and homebound persons in Gaithersburg.

“It is the greatest feeling in the world,” said restaurant owner Nader Saleh. “I look forward to that day every year.”

Mr. Saleh emigrated from Lebanon in 1989. He said the Gaithersburg community gave him so much support that he wants to give back by donating food and his time on Thanksgiving. That, he said, is the true spirit of the national holiday.

Mr. Saleh’s restaurant will prepare 32 20-pound turkeys with all the trimmings. The meals will be served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at the Gaithersburg Elementary School.

Volunteers also will deliver the meals to Gaithersburg residents who aren’t able to leave their homes because of illness. The leftovers — and there are always leftovers, Mr. Saleh said — will be taken to a local men’s shelter.

“Our society is so self-centered, we try to teach our youth to be more giving,” said Scott Chopas, pastor of outreach at Derwood Bible Church. Mr. Chopas recruits volunteers to help Mr. Saleh serve the meals.

Charities in the District also have been busy this week.

Martha’s Table, a soup kitchen in the District, on Sunday hosted its annual Thanksgiving banquet, which served about 500 people.

Juliet Orzal, the organization’s director of volunteers, said they serve anyone who wants to come. “A man who is in line has already humbled himself enough. He should be served no matter what,” she said.

After the banquet, the charity’s mobile kitchen delivered food to the homeless in McPherson Square. Homeless men in stocking caps and wool blankets left their benches and ran toward the white van as it pulled up at the corner of K and 15th streets NW.

“I try not to take more than I need,” said a man who identified himself only as Kevin. “I am thankful for everything.”

Other groups pitched in on an even larger scale.

Volunteers at the Lorton Community Action Center in Virginia have distributed food to 129 local needy families.

Sodexho USA, a Gaithersburg-based provider of food and facilities in the United States, on Tuesday donated six tons of turkeys to Sterling Robinson, executive director of Project Harvest 2003, the region’s largest annual Thanksgiving food drive. About 1,000 turkeys were delivered to Project Harvest’s collection site at the Old Post Office Pavilion in Northwest to help feed 1,000 D.C. families.

“With so many families in the Washington, D.C., area at risk of hunger, we are doing everything we can to help meet their needs,” said Joan McGlockton, vice president of corporate affairs for Sodexho.

The Washington Jewish Community Center has about 350 volunteers who will cook and serve meals for 2,000 at the Community for Creative Non-Violence homeless shelter in Northwest.

Across the Potomac River, the youth program of McLean Bible Church collected an estimated 7,000 turkey dinners, which members will pass on to volunteer groups that will deliver the food to local needy families.

Most of the churches and charities will begin preparing for Christmas as early as tomorrow.

“It is a hectic and crazy time,” said Ms. Laux, as she stood among the mounds of donated food in Messiah’s sanctuary on Sunday. “But it is a lot of fun.”

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