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Holiday meal brings residents to church

December 26, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

With two years of sobriety energizing him, Rufus Mason was thrilled to comfort the needy, the hungry and the lonely Thursday.

This was Mason's first time helping at the annual free Christmas Day meal at Bethel Assembly of God Church on East Wilson Boulevard in Hagerstown.

"So many are here for a family atmosphere," Mason said. "They just want someone who will stop by and say, 'Hi, glad you're here.'"

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Mason named crack cocaine and alcohol as his former addictions.

"I was trying to find a kind of peace," he said. "I was looking at all the wrong places."

On Thursday, for the sixth year in a row, Bethel Assembly was a welcoming place to eat in peace or with the conversation of strangers.

It also was a place to call and have food delivered.

At about 2 p.m., as the day was winding down, Ed Kennedy, who helps organize the annual dinner, said that around 300 meals were served at the church. Some diners packed an extra portion to take home and picked up a small bag of fruit at the exit door.

Another 220 meals were taken to residents at the Alexander House, Potomac Towers and Walnut Towers apartment complexes, Kennedy said. One volunteer said at least 300 meals were delivered overall.

Based on Kennedy's estimates during last year's meal (about 280 total served at the church and delivered), the number of requests may have doubled this year. Three times as many people came in to eat dinner than last year.

Kennedy said much of that increase was because the free Christmas With Nick feast at the Four Points Sheraton on Dual Highway was canceled after 17 years.

Hotel owner Nick Giannaris has said his health is failing and he's not able to keep up the tradition, which attracted as many as 1,500 people some years.

A free dinner at Robinwood Medical Center Wednesday helped fill the void, too. The organizers of that meal donated leftover food to Bethel Assembly for its dinner.

"Everyone is just excited about this opportunity to share the real spirit of Christmas - giving and sharing ..." said the Rev. Terry Broadwater, Bethel Assembly's pastor. "We just have a church full of people who want to make a difference."

"Yeah, we touched a lot of lives," Kennedy said.

Finishing off a plate of ham, turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans, Doug Barnhart of Williamsport called the food "miraculous." He said he lives alone and wouldn't have prepared anything fancy for himself.

He always has alternated each Christmas - going to Christmas With Nick one year, staying home the next. Without Giannaris' meal, Barnhart sampled Bethel Assembly instead.

"I don't think enough people take advantage," he said. "(The church) is not shy. It's welcome."

A woman who did not want to give her name said she went to Christmas With Nick the last three years. She found out about Bethel Assembly's meal at the same time she found out Giannaris' was canceled, so she decided to try it.

The woman, a widow, said that without the church meal, she might have walked around searching for someone with whom to share the holiday.

She said Bethel Assembly might have had a better turnout if Turner Van Service offered free rides, as it did each year for Christmas With Nick. Turner Van Service was closed Thursday.

There was free transportation at Bethel Assembly, though on a smaller scale. Some of the church's 50 volunteers picked diners up and brought them to the meal.

The church also gave toys and books to children. Church member Timothy Flaherty of Hagerstown said his employer, Scholastic Book Fairs Inc., donated about 15 boxes of books.

Janice Kelsh of Hagerstown, who is on the church's benevolence committee, said people could choose items from the church's Clothes Closet as well.

Mason said it was Kelsh who brought shoes to the Hagerstown Union Rescue Mission one day while he was living there, battling drug and alcohol dependency. She directed him toward the church.

"I'm on my second year of being drug-free and now enjoying life," he said.

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