Having grown up in a large Italian American family, Father Charlie Pardee would speak of massive meals prepared with love and a great deal of hard work and sacrifice.
Kind of like the Last Supper, where Jesus bowed down and washed His disciples’ feet.
“It’s not just about the eating,” Fr. Pardee, now deceased, once preached. “It’s about the serving and the sacrifice.”
That’s why he vigorously promoted celebrating World Day of the Poor with a community meal while he was pastor of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City.
Pope Francis in 2017 called for World Day of the Poor to be observed each year on the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
The Pope visualized Christian communities seizing the occasion to “make every effort to create moments of encounter and friendship, solidarity and concrete assistance.”
“And so,” Fr. Pardee wrote in response, “our parish will celebrate this day, celebrate the Gospel, celebrate evangelism — by reaching out to the poor and eating with them and letting them evangelize us, too.”
He instructed the parish’s conference of the St. Vincent de Paul society to organize the meal and spread the word throughout the city to places where people in need can often be found.
He asked parishioners to prepare side dishes to go with the main course.
Most importantly, he urged everyone to join their guests at the table, listen to their stories and recognize that Christ was there at the table with them.
The parish’s World Day of the Poor tradition has continued, growing from about 120 people that first year to over 200 in this, the third.
The Nov. 18 gathering took place in the parish’s recently renovated Selinger Center gym.
To the end of the line
Around 30 people volunteered to help set up, serve the meal and clean up afterward.
About 15 women worked in the kitchen, keeping the side dishes heated and ready to serve.
Members of Knights of Columbus Fr. Helias Council 1054 prepared the pulled-pork entrée, which was provided by the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society conference.
People started arriving well ahead of the 1 p.m. social hour.
Tables were filled with attendance prizes and gifts for the guests.
There were backpacks and school supplies, first-aid kits, new pairs of gloves and socks, prayer cards and rosaries.
Students at St. Peter Interparish School hand-made the placemats and stuffed “blessing bags” of personal-care items to give away.
Local restaurants and Huber & Associates donated gift cards to be raffled as door prizes.
“We kept drawing throughout the day,” said parishioner Diane Struemph, co-chair of the event’s organizing committee. “People were excited when they won.”
Volunteers administered free flu shots and blood-pressure checks.
The Trolley Co. in Jefferson City donated the use of its trolley-shaped shuttle bus. Parishioner Mike Wiseman volunteered to drive it on a continuous loop to several locations and back to the church throughout the event.
The buffet meal occupied three tables, along with two additional tables of desserts.
Parishioner Jack Kramer served as master of ceremonies.
Father Jeremy Secrist, pastor of St. Peter parish, joined in the fellowship with the parishioners and the guests.
He called the parish’s observance of the World Day of the Poor “a beautiful expression of many of the Corporal Works of Mercy.”
“It was a more than just a community meal,” he said. “It was a gathering in which parishioners were invited to recognize and encounter the Lord as He comes among us in those who are hungry, those who are in need,” he said.
He noted that the readings and prayers for the last few Sundays of the liturgical year focus on the “final things,” “the most important things” — namely, what happens after people die.
“My thoughts are drawn toward the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel,” he said, “in which Jesus calls us to consider the basis upon which we will be judged: ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You?’”
Need to connect
St. Peter parishioners Judd and Sara Garner brought their children to help out.
“We want our kids to see how many opportunities there are out there to serve,” said Mrs. Garner, a teacher at St. Peter Interparish School. “It’s important to show support, especially when it’s taking place here in our home parish.”
This was the second year their daughter, Sabella, a third-grader at the school, helped fill drinks at the beverage table.
She said spending two hours on her feet was well worth it.
“We were helping people who need food and need help,” she stated.
It felt good for her to do something good for other people.
She believes part of what God wanted her to learn from the experience was “putting other people before you and not just thinking about yourself.”
She wants to help out again and hopes her friends will join her.
Mrs. Garner noticed that the room was filled with smiling faces and warm conversations among parishioners and guests.
“I think we really need to connect with people versus just giving them something,” she said. “This helps foster hope and lets them know we’re here to support them in many different ways.”
“I decided to come because I need positive opportunities to know the community,” one of the guests told a Jefferson City News-Tribune reporter. “And I got to ride a trolley. It was fun!”
The guest and her two children were smiling as they perused the tables of give-away items.
Another guest told the News-Tribune reporter: “We’ve hit some hard times and it’s always nice when the community reaches out to help those in similar situations.”
“He’s carrying you”
Mrs. Struemph helped organize the event with parishioner Betty Schrimpf of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
“It was really a neat experience just being able to share with people in need,” said Mrs. Struemph, “because there were several families with children, not just adults, who came.”
She was amazed at how grateful the people were for the food and hospitality.
“One man came back three times just to say thank you to the volunteers,” she said.
Mrs. Struemph said that before volunteering with the local Building Community Bridges organization, she couldn’t fathom how extensive the needs are in and around Jefferson City, especially since the May 20 tornado.
“You wouldn’t believe!” she said. “And there are some people who will never even ask for help because they’re afraid they’ll have their children taken away from them.”
Nonetheless, she’s convinced that God is present through all of it.
“He’s always with us,” she said. “You just have to have faith and trust.
“It’s kind of like the ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem. At the hardest time for you, He’s carrying you through it.”
Before going to bed, Mrs. Struemph thanked God for a successful event and for all the people she got to meet that day.
“And please be with the people who came to spend time with us,” she prayed. “Help those who are without a roof over their heads stay warm. Help us to do whatever we can to help.”
Contributing to this article was Gerry Tritz, a reporter for the Jefferson City News-Tribune. Excerpts from his article, published Nov. 19, are included here with permission.