COLUMBIA — The 10th annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner went off without a hitch at the Carolina Coliseum Thursday, but two major changes did add a bittersweet taste to the huge feed.
First, the co-sponsoring parishes, St. Peter Church and First Baptist Church, decided to increase the outreach effort of the feast this year by a substantial margin. More than 600 meals were delivered to handicapped veterans, recovering drug abusers, the elderly in nursing homes and others who were unable to get to the Coliseum itself.
“It’s a significant change,” said co-chair Robert Keeder. “With these satellite facilities, we’re extending our ministry out into the city more this year. We’ve increased the take-outs by half.”
That was the sweetness.
The second change involved Keeder himself. The veteran St. Vincent de Paul Society volunteer was forced to do most of his organizing via the telephone after colon cancer struck him earlier in the year. He is undergoing chemical therapy and was allowed by his doctors to attend the event for one hour only. Although he is hopeful about the outcome of his struggle with the disease, he acknowledges that he is grateful for the outpouring of prayers and kindnesses from members of his St. Peter’s faith community. Many are concerned.
“We’re worried about him. He’s only 50 years old, and he’s fighting for his life,” said John Dispenza.
Still, overseeing the dinner that Keeder has been a part of since its beginning seemed to energize the man. He has an ambitious vision for the future.
“My dream is to meet with other churches and to set up something like this in all the deaneries. Our coordinators all know what to do each year now, and we have so many good people volunteer that we’re ready to go through the bishop’s office and branch out,” Keeder said.
The community dinner started, he said, when St. Peter’s was serving 300 homeless in the parish hall during the ’80s. Msgr. Leigh Lehocky, who is diocesan vicar for ecumenism and pastor of St. Peter’s, hoped to partner with another denomination to expand the effort. The first joint venture was held on a downtown street. The pastor of First Baptist saw the need climb precipitously.
“A few years ago, we served over 2,000 meals,” said the Rev. Dr. Wendell Estep. “Now with the economy stronger, there is less need although we wish there was none at all.”
Each year, the number of volunteers continued to grow, however. In 2000 about 350 volunteers served nearly 1,500 meals, including the take-outs.
Those volunteers came from parishes, synagogues and mosques from around the Midlands, Keeder said. Some came from far off in what has become a fall pilgrimage of sorts to help feed the hungry. Dispenza’s brother Francis came from Rochester, N.Y., as he’s done for nine years now to help cook 400 turkeys and serve the meal.
“It’s part of our ministry,” Fran Dispenza said.
His brother agreed: “It becomes contagious, doing God’s work.”
Michael Fusco Jr. caught that contagion. He and his father own the Rhino Room, an upscale eatery in Columbia’s trendy Vista district. Owners and staff cooked 52 turkeys and then came to the Coliseum to carve and serve them following a busy holiday eve the night before.
“This is what we do, so it’s easy for us,” Fusco said. “Besides, we don’t do enough (for the needy), and this is a chance for something worthwhile.”
Msgr. Lehocky said that the sight of so many people enjoying the holiday by sitting down with each other to enjoy a warm meal provides nourishment for volunteer and guest alike.
“This is feeding the spirit as well as the body, using the grace of the day to interact with our neighbors,” the priest said.
The feeding the body part involved cooking 500 pounds of vegetables, 400 pounds of bread (including 1,000 biscuits donated by Bojangles), 80 gallons of gravy, 450 pounds of stuffing and potatoes and 1,200 cans of soft drinks (donated by Wendy’s). Cromers Peanuts supplied thousands of disposable aprons and gloves for the servers and cooks, and SCANA Corp. was a major financial contributor. Main Street United Methodist Church contributed to the ecumenical flavor of the event by donating 50 15-pound turkeys.