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Meals for the multitude: Churches step up to feed festivalgoers

Somewhat like Jesus with his loaves and fishes, several Jonesborough churches opened doors and welcomed the hungry this past weekend as part of the 43rd annual National Storytelling Festival, Oct. 2-4.
Their purpose, according to those involved, was part ministry, part fundraiser — and it’s a tradition most have been involved with for a decade or more.
“I believe that we as the body of Christ are the only Bible some people will ever read,” said Pastor Jeremy Dykes with Jackson Park Church of the Brethren, which hosted its 12th annual traditional Southern breakfast fundraiser Oct. 3. “Just reaching out to share the love of Christ can make a difference.”
The breakfast, from which proceeds go to support the church’s youth programs, involves nearly every church member, according to Dykes, and featured biscuits and gravy, sausage, bacon, grits, eggs and more.
It also boasted more than a few returning customers — festival attendees who have made it a tradition to visit Jackson Park for their Saturday morning meal each year.
“We try to come every year, now that we’ve found it,” said Windy Bartee, from South Carolina.
“I like the loving spirit as well as the food.”
Jim and Mary Ann Lucas, from Memphis, have been eating at the Jackson Park breakfast for about 10 years. They said they used to visit the Jonesborough Presbyterian Church’s Pancake Breakfast, but when that was discontinued, they needed a new breakfast location.
With a daughter who is a chaplain, they also knew they wanted to stick to a church fundraiser, if possible.
They found Jackson Park, with biscuits and gravy and grits, two dishes they can’t resist.
Besides the good food, “this is warm and welcoming and it’s inside,” Mary Ann Lucas said with a smile.
“We want to encourage them,” Jim Lucas added. “They’re here for us. We want to be here for them.”
Return customers are more the norm than the exception at most of the churches involved in food fundraisers during Storytelling.
At Central Christian Church at the corner of Fox and Main streets in downtown Jonesborough, festivalgoers have been filling their bowls with homemade soup, with sandwiches, drinks and desserts on the side, for nearly two decades.
And many, according to Debbie Roberson, pastor’s wife and an organizer of the event, are repeat customers.
“They come to eat with us every year,” she said.
The money raised, Roberson said, “helps fund our youth, our missions and also helps with those items that come up that are not budgeted in.”
But the chance to visit with the customers is still a huge blessing.
“We get to talk to the people who come through,” Roberson said. “We get to ask them where they are from . . . find out about their lives. Sometimes you get to witness to people (about your experiences).”
Hot soup, as well as chili and cornbread, also brought hungry customers in out of the cold, rainy weather this weekend to Mustard Seed Worship Center on Depot Street.
“The first year we did soup beans,” said Becky Harris, who wears many hats at Mustard Seed, including organizing the soup fundraiser. Now the church offers soup beans, chili, potato soup and vegetable soup, along with cornbread, crackers, drinks and to-die-for desserts during Storytelling weekend. Proceeds go to help those in community, as well as meet specific church needs.
Of course, for Alex Prim, visiting the festival from Mountain View, Missouri, and dozing in a handy rocking chair after his hot soup lunch, the church basement’s cozy, welcoming atmosphere may have been every bit as important as the good food that drew him in.
“I heard people in town talking about it,” said Prim, who was visiting the National Storytelling Festival for the first time.
“This is the best restaurant in town,” he added with a well-satisfied grin.
Just down the road, at Bethel Christian Church, the analogy of feeding with fish is even more apparent. Here, the church served up many meals of spaghetti and fried fish to storytelling diners this year.
“When we first did Storytelling, we did a bake sale,” recalled Nancy Robinson, chairperson for the Christian Women’s Fellowship that sponsors the dinner. From there, they eventually moved to the spaghetti and fish menu — and that has proven to be the biggest hit.
“They tell us they keep coming because they want to taste the fish and spaghetti,” Robinson said.
Cost is always by donation only. “If they’ve got a dollar, it’s a dollar,” she said, then added with a chuckle. “If they’ve got $100, we’ll take that too.” And proceeds go to help various church missions.
But these breakfasts, lunches and dinners have come to mean even more than a way to fundraise or even reach out to the community.
It’s also become a great event that enriches church members as well.
“We all get together for this,” Robinson said. “All the food is made from scratch.” And, she said, she is often delighted to fellowship with other Christians coming through their line.
“This is my home church,” said Jane Pack at Jackson Park. “It’s a blessing. I was sitting here, looking out at everyone and thinking, can you imagine how much more we can do?”
Pastor Bob Roberson with Central Christian agrees. “This is the most fun and fellowship we have all year,” he said of the project, which involves church members working shoulder to shoulder to produce the good work and ends up fostering a tremendous feeling of unity.
Dykes said that he, too, has witnessed this same blessing.
“The youth are the ones who benefit financially, but all of the church participates,” Dykes said. “And it binds us together.”