Come Thursday, most Catholic American families will, like the rest of the country, gather around a steaming table of food straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. God will be thanked. Bonds will be strengthened. It will be good.
Meanwhile, some hardy Catholic souls will exchange the family kitchen for the soup kitchen, serving the poor as a way to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to places where people might otherwise go hungry in more ways than one.
In Arlington, Va., the Knights of Columbus in the Edward Douglass White Council do corporal works of mercy on a grand scale. Before celebrating with their own turkey dinners at home, these Knights prepare and serve 350 Thanksgiving dinners in their hall to families and individuals, and deliver another 1,150 to shut-ins and people in senior homes and low-income housing. They even drive vans to the highways and byways to bring the poor, like the area's migrant workers, back to the council hall for this dinner.
Knights and their families do everything from cooking the meals to serving them, says past Grand Knight Jerry Garren. The day before Thanksgiving, he explains, the Garren family prepares three turkeys at home.
“As a mother, cooking is a way I show my love for my family,” says wife and mom KaCee. “So cooking these turkeys for members of God's family who I don't even see eating them gives me fulfillment that I'm able to share my love with them.”
Come 5:30 a.m. Thanksgiving morning, the council's big kitchen is abuzz with volunteers prepping all the trimmings.
“We've been doing it so long,” says Jerry, “we get people who are non-members of the Knights walk in that day to help prepare the salad, box dinners or serve. It's almost a community charity event.”
High school sophomore Will Douthitt will help to deliver meals and wait on tables again this year. Once he learned about this meal for the poor while in eighth grade, he began volunteering to cook turkeys plus deliver and serve meals.
“I remember particularly this one family with eight kids in a rundown apartment with the mother and an older sister taking care of them,” Will recalls. “It opens your eyes and make you more thankful for your own Thanksgiving dinner, a really extravagant meal my mom puts together.”
Another volunteer, retired physician Dr. Robert Kling, delivers the dinners to the homebound, then returns to wait on tables. He well remembers one stop at an apartment house that he describes, probably euphemistically, as “not an elegant place.” He hoped for a prompt response to his knock on the door. Instead, it took a long time to answer.
“I felt a little bit impatient,” recalls Kling. Then he met the resident. “She was a poor soul in a wheelchair and had no legs at all,” he says. “She had a hard time even unbolting the door.
“She was very grateful for the Thanksgiving dinner I brought her,” he continues. “There are lots of people who throw away more food than I am bringing this poor soul, I thought, and here is a person who would not have a Thanksgiving dinner if I hadn't brought it.”
He felt grateful for the opportunity.
“This does more for the bringers, the deliverers, and the servers,” he says, “than for those who are getting it.”
Third Order Regular Franciscan Father James Gigliotti, a pastor in Arlington, Texas, points out that Americans have always had an instinctive sense of appreciation for the bounty most of us enjoy — and often take for granted.
“Because I'm aware how I am blessed, I share with those who have less,” he says. “That's embroidered into our culture.”
He also points out the evangelical aspects of tending to the poor in a special way on special days: You can't very well bring Jesus to someone who's hungry for basic sustenance. But, just by showing up with food and a caring hand, you feed a person two ways — physically and spiritually.
In Atlantic City, St. Nicholas of Tolentine Catholic Church gives all the fixings for an average 500 Thanksgiving dinners on the Monday before the holiday. There's enough food for a week. And there's more.
“We live in a very needy neighborhood in the shadow of the casinos,” explains the pastor, Father William Hodge.
Here, Thanksgiving stretches yearlong because, every month, from the church doors, the Legion of Mary feeds 2,000. Among them are the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill. Some are otherwise stable but for being seniors on fixed incomes and fatherless families on welfare.
The Legion of Mary distributes holy articles, religious pictures, rosaries and brown scapulars with the food to anyone who wants them, explains Father Hodge.
“Often,” he says, “the people in the lines say of the religious articles: ‘We need this more than we need the food.’ So were evangelizing at the same time as we're feeding, encouraging people to go to church.”
Legion of Mary President Donna Gerace, along with her husband, Joe, started helping here after she was walking to church and saw people picking food out of trash cans. Now these people come to St. Nicholas's regularly.
“They say, ‘God bless you,’” Donna says of the Thanksgiving meals. “They're evangelizing me.”
Such volunteer efforts also give families a chance to help each other. Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Glenn Sudano reminds that parents have to teach children generosity and gratitude — not just by words but by example.
“To do some kind of hands-on work with the poor is certainly an invitation of Our Lord, who fed the hungry,” he says. “As a family-affair activity, I can't think of anything more nourishing spiritually than to serve the needs of others. It's a wonderful witness of faith.”
Take the Timoney family. Margaret and Larry were founders of the Thanksgiving meal deliveries to shut-ins through Catholic Charities St. John's Breadline in Springfield, Ill. Although Larry died five years ago, Margaret keeps the family tradition alive with her six adult sons and daughters, who come home for the holidays and who, as children, helped with their parents. On Thanksgiving morning, after prayer, all pile into cars to deliver turkey dinners to up to 50 elderly people.
“You're an extension of God's hands when you do that,” reflects Margaret modestly. “We're grateful that we're capable of going on and helping someone else that day. We're only a little part of all the servers there. Everybody is a little piece in God's puzzle.”
Newer pieces include the three Timoney grandsons, ages 9 to 17, who began helping at just 5 years old. They fill out an unfolding picture of a family Thanksgiving tradition that looks to keep the New Evangelization new for years to come.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.