When Maxine Ford prayed the blessing for St. Vincent de Paul Society’s 30th annual Christmas dinner at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Baton Rouge Dining Room was packed with 120 hungry residents while nearly 200 more patiently waited outside under threatening clouds.
“I want God to bless us and this food we are about to receive in Jesus’ name, amen,” Ford prayed, stirring a round of applause for her sincere brevity.
“A short prayer comes in handy when you are hungry,” she said as she sat down at a table with her family.
The storm clouds menaced but held their rain until after 1 p.m., when everyone was finally seated.
More than 150 volunteers helped serve 722 meals at the event, said Michael J. Acaldo, president and CEO of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Council of Baton Rouge.
“God had different plans. It only sprinkled for a few minutes and nobody really got wet,” Acaldo said later Tuesday afternoon. “It was a phenomenal day.”
The Dining Room feeds people every day at no charge. By the end of the month, they expect to break another annual record of meals served by topping 240,000, Acaldo said.
Maxine Wilson was managing the crowd at the front door and sending individuals and families to available tables. “I just like to give something back,” she said with a big smile. “And on Christmas Day Jesus is here!”
“They are giving the gift of themselves,” Acaldo said. “It’s a day of caring, sharing and blessing.”
The society can always use volunteers — not just at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, Acaldo said.
Usually meals are served cafeteria style, but on this day the needy and homeless were seated at tables and served individually.
Each plate was heaped with turkey, fried by Louisiana Pipe and Valve employees, rice dressing, green bean casserole, fruit salad, slices of cake for dessert and a gift card for items at an outside “Christmas Store” of new and used clothing, bedding and, especially for the children, toys and bicycles.
The Needy of Greater Baton Rouge supplied the Christmas Store tents and many of the toys and 500 sets of new blankets and pillows for those needing them, said Tim Arceneaux, director of the nonprofit group.
“This year, because God has blessed us so, we’re going to give each person blankets and pillows,” Arceneaux said.
Chris King, his wife, Amy, and daughters Hayley, 15, and Mallory, 12, volunteers from First United Methodist Church, were handing out the pillows and blankets.
“We decided we were tired of ‘giftmas’ and wanted to celebrate Christmas and to do something that really has meaning and focus on someone other than ourselves,” Chris King said. “We couldn’t think of a better way to spend our Christmas morning.”
“I kinda find it fun, actually,” Mallory King added. “What would Jesus do? He would serve people.”
After presiding over Christmas morning Mass at nearby St. Joseph Cathedral, Bishop Robert Muench mingled with the volunteers and diners, blessing the children and wishing “Merry Christmas” to the adults.
“This community is showing its care for people who have special needs in terms of food and shelter,” Muench said. “People say, ‘Where is God?’ Well, I’m seeing God here, in the people that come to be served and the people who are here to serve them.”
On Saturday, Muench distributed 1,001 gifts to needy children, an event that took more than two hours compared with the usual hour or so, he said.
“I have never remembered seeing so many people here for lunch,” he said. “It just shows the need of the community is great.”
Alvin Richardson, who said he was full from the meal that “was real good, real good,” was carrying a bag full of clothes and blankets for a friend who couldn’t make it to the luncheon. “I think this is a miracle from God and I thank them all very much.”
This was the first time Denise Marie McGee, who was accompanied by four of her friends and family, had been to the Christmas meal. “The meal was delicious and the workers were very debonair,” she said. “God bless them.”
Outside, volunteer Kevin Lindholm was keeping vehicles from parking in front of the semi-trailers at the nearby trucking company. “I have a blessed life and I figure this is the least I can do,” he said.
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