Holiday meals: More than food

One of the most inspiring things we get to post in The Compass each year is the listing of free holiday dinners held around the 16 counties of the Diocese of Green Bay. Each Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, we reach out to various groups and churches who offer holiday meals to one and all.

Hundreds, even thousands, of meals are served each year, by hundreds of volunteers.

Last year, many of these meals — starting at Easter — were canceled due to COVID-19. Everyone was disappointed, especially since they were in the midst of preparations when the Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” emergency order went into effect on March 25, 2020. (Last year, Easter fell on April 12.)

Ed Rathsack, of We Care Meals in Appleton, expressed a sentiment echoed by each of these groups: “I’d feel terrible if anybody caught anything.” It was the first cancelation in Rathsack’s 30 years of serving meals.

However, by Thanksgiving, people had adapted and meals were again offered in many places. For example, at Father Carr’s Place 2B in Oshkosh, executive director John Nieman explained that their plans for drive-up meals came as the result of creativity: “Brainstorming, sharing ideas, with the mission always in mind that we are here to serve our community, but want to do it safely,” he told The Compass in November.

At Christmas, the Manitowoc Cooperative Ministry, which includes First United Church of Christ and First Presbyterian Church, voiced what so many of these groups say each year: “The mission of ‘community dinners’ is to feed the body and the soul. We believe that all people deserve a nutritious meal shared in an atmosphere of respect, compassion and friendship. Our meals are served with hope, as we address hunger, mental health and spiritual needs. Over the last 12 years, we have had the privilege of serving more than 45,000 meals.”

“The privilege.” That is what we have found with all of these groups: They express gratitude that they can serve others — not that they feel blessed because they are serving others, doing something good (which they are) — but that they are blessed to be allowed to serve others.

When The Compass began these listings 20 years ago, we first contacted only Catholic entities. However, through the years came the realization that so many non-Catholic groups were also serving meals. With that realization came the insight that what mattered was that people — all people — got every chance to enjoy a meal, friendship and company on holidays. It didn’t matter who offered the meal, the intent to feed whoever they could — body and soul — mattered more.

On Holy Thursday, we will again hear Jesus’ command: “As I have done for you, you should also do (Jn 13:15).” The words came right after he washed the feet of his apostles. He blessed and served them, so they could bless and serve others. The dinner listings have witnessed to how many people have followed that command.

These groups have also shown that this is no command, but a gift which they gratefully receive.

Finally, there is not one group which has failed to say how much they appreciate the chance to reach out through the medium of The Compass. No one has ever said “No” to our requests for information, even though our paper is targeted to a Catholic audience. Everyone we have contacted over the years has always thanked us for thinking of them. And they have stressed, each one, how the most important thing to them is that The Compass makes certain to tell people how delighted they are to have visitors come — no matter their religious persuasion, or lack thereof.

Here’s just one example from this year: When Rev. Jonathan Carlson of Hillside Assembly of God in Gillett and Pound was asked if his two churches needed any donations or volunteers for Easter, all he answered was, “Nope, just let them know they are welcome!”