For more than 25 years, the congregation of Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland has provided a complete, sit-down, free Thanksgiving dinner to anyone who shows up. What began as a community service project for the people of the church has become an opportunity to partner with community groups – including local high school students – who want to do community service work.
"Because the outreach to community groups has grown – and because LMUMC is one of only a handful of free Thanksgiving dinners in Oakland on the holiday – we have had to turn away volunteers in the past two years," Lake Merritt pastor, the Rev. Mary Elyn Bahlert, reports.
The work of preparing the Thanksgiving dinner has evolved over the years. Coordinator Stephen Ford and his crew have tweaked the way the meal is prepared and served, and each year, in the weeks after the big day, they meet to evaluate what went well and what could be done differently.
For the past several years, donated frozen turkeys begin to arrive approximately two weeks before the big day. The turkeys are cooked onsite in the church kitchen the day before Thanksgiving, cut and prepared for serving, and re-heated on Thanksgiving Day. The social hall and kitchen at Lake Merritt are a buzz of activity for days before the holiday, as volunteers organize, cook and bake, arrive with pies, decorate tables, and train new volunteers.
On Thanksgiving morning, pots of gravy are stirred on the stoves, and volunteers who will do the serving line up, each with a specific task, in the kitchen. Pies are cut on tables in a storage room next to the kitchen. Servers stand in front of the kitchen, ready to give individual attention to the guests.
On Thanksgiving Day, greeters meet guests and escort them to the sanctuary for live piano music and singing, while the final preparations take place in the kitchen and dining room (which can be seen from the sanctuary). Since Thanksgiving heralds the beginning of the holiday season, often those gathered sing Christmas carols while waiting for dinner. When the meal is ready – right about 12 noon – volunteers gather for a prayer before they begin to serve the guests.
Rev. Bahlert offers a prayer in English, and invites others to offer prayers in several other languages – the languages of the guests. In past years, prayers before the meal have been spoken in Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Russian. Then the meal begins!
The pastor likes to say that these are "her people" as she stops to visit at the guests' tables, and sits down to eat a meal after most people have been served. One year, a man who lives on the street near the church, after learning that she was the pastor, approached Bahlert and said, "I saw Jesus here today!"
"I saw him, too," she replied. The man's eyes lit up. Now, he takes part in the meal every year.
Last year, Lake Merritt UMC served complete, sit-down Thanksgiving meals to some 600 people. Afterward, leftovers – and even turkey carcasses, to be used to make soup in the coming days – are given to those who line up for leftovers.
Bahlert says, "While Thanksgiving Dinner at Lake Merritt UMC may seem like a gift to our guests, the gift is ours. We are privileged to be able to serve.
"BigJon Hoskins, now a member of Lake Merritt UMC, was alone 10 years ago when he first arrived for the Thanksgiving meal. Now, he's in church every Sunday, eyes shining – an important member of the community."