Feeding the multitude

Volunteer Danny Milleman cooks and slices ham, turkey and venison Wednesday for a yearly pre-Thanksgiving meal for the needy on Wadmalaw and Johns islands on Saturday at St. John’s Parish Episcopal Church.

There is, floating around here today, a master Excel spreadsheet whose worth is divine, and in this particular circumstance, the word divine is not hyperbole.

It contains a list of mouth-watering foods — everything from baked dressing to candied yams and cakes and pies — with underneath the names of 30 or so churches, and next to them a seemingly endless list of names of parishioners, and next to them assignments by the number of pans. Big pans, a total of 25 for each type of food.

The spreadsheet is the sacred organization scroll for today’s eighth annual Feeding of the Multitude, an interfaith Christian event organized by the churches of Johns and Wadmalaw islands and their congregations to share a pre-Thanksgiving meal together in fellowship with prayer and song. It’s one of several such ministries that have sprung up in the Charleston area starting in the mid-1990s.

Close to 1,000 people come out to eat together on Johns Island, and another 400 or so meals are distributed to the homebound, ranging from the needy to firefighters and nursing home staffs, for a total of 1,200 to 1,500 mouths fed, and sometimes many more. The intent is to reach out to as many parishioners and people in need as possible and touch them with community spirit through a Thanksgiving dinner, free to anyone who wants or needs one.

The parable that most epitomizes the spirit of the event is Matthew 25:36, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,” said Claudia Boyce, a parishioner at St. John’s Parish Church who spearheaded creation of the event, inspired by something similar she experienced at St. John’s Episcopal Chapel downtown.

Now she is the organizational backbone of the feeding, whose largesse depends on the generosity and work of hundreds of volunteers.

“It’s a huge event depending on many people doing their parts,” said Boyce after sharing the spreadsheet. “God is in charge.”

In addition to an enormous amount of food, also at the event are animal rescue and public safety groups and medical clinics there to share information with the community. And there are prayer groups and singing and dancing, with churches of all stripes rolling out their choirs, from gospel to folk to praise music.

A special tribute to veterans and those serving in the military will be included in this year’s event.

Volunteers sign up for duties today helping greet, park, serve and pray, and dozens more have spent the past few days cooking. Many more will distribute food to those who cannot come.

“It’s like a huge puzzle of players, but it all falls into place. The Holy Spirit runs the show. We all just smile and shake our heads,” said Boyce, whose voice exudes excitement at the mere thought of it all.

Started as a way of communing over a Thanksgiving meal, over the years the event has become more and more layered with a marked fellowship that crosses racial as well as denominational lines, said The Rev. Gregory Snyder, pastor of St. John’s Parish Church, on whose grounds the feeding takes place. The sight of the hundreds partaking in the festivities is a source of great joy for him, “a glimpse of the kingdom,” he called it.

“It was such a revelation about what it’s like to do something like this together ... that it’s really become a festival of the churches, black and white,” Snyder said. “It’s really about telling the people of Johns and Wadmalaw islands that we love them.”

“This event is about the body of Christ and the churches working together as a community,” said Boyce. “We are really all one church. We may have different styles of worshiping, but we are all God’s people and the differences fall away around this celebration.”

Feeding upward of 1,200 people is nothing less than an epic endeavor, with people roasting and basting, baking and boiling, pulling and carving, plating and bagging. Among them are Pam and Miles Hanckel, whose home on Johns Island serves as the meat grilling headquarters. Hanckel uses seven grills, four gas cookers and four charcoal cookers to cook 38 20-pound turkeys, 24 hams, and three deer.

“It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun and a lot of feel-good when it’s all done,” said Hanckel, who has been cooking for the event since it began. He said the event fills him with gratitude and joy. “This could be someone’s only meal of the day, sometimes of the week ... It’s a really strong feeling.”

“It’s really an enormous amount of food. There is always food, food. We never run out of food. The Lord blesses it and stretches it and makes sure everyone is fed to capacity,” said The Reverend Mary Stoney, pastor of LRP Ministries, a nondenominational church on Johns Island involved in the feeding preparations since the event’s inception.

But, as often is the case, food is really a thread to the spirit, a sharing of communality, of love, hope and grief and difficulty, too. The event involves the Hispanic community of Johns Island, Boyce said, and the needy in every form, including the disenfranchised, the homeless and the homebound. Jobless people come, people living in cars and people in need of a prayer.

“The food,” said Stoney, “is the oneness of all these different people coming together and celebrating fellowship ... It gives God a warm feeling as well as me to feel as one with all these people. It is oneness, and we do it with such joy.”

“It’s a feast, but it’s a spiritual feast,” Boyce said. “It’s the Holy Spirit who really knows what’s going on on this day.”

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