By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 22, 2022
ATLANTA—Surrounding the altar were scores of grocery totes with instant potatoes, stuffing mix and canned vegetables as the crowded Sunday Mass got underway.
After Father Dennis Dorner said the final blessing, parishioners of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta prepared Thanksgiving dinner kits for strangers. It’s a nearly 20-year tradition on the last Sunday before Thanksgiving.
The work starts in early November when families are encouraged to grab a shopping list to prepare a meal for a family of six. On Nov. 20, the bags of groceries were returned full of store-bought goods.
Gathering after the pandemic to serve the greater community
Scott Mussak, who lives in Decatur, said the Sunday afternoon effort is one reason he is makes the drive to attend the parish.
“They try to direct our focus to the greater community,” said Mussak, who balanced two boxes in his arms while his daughter Caitlin, a student at Georgia State University, filled them.
Caitlin said the community effort is worth her time.
“After the pandemic, coming out and doing these kind of community events, they have been more important,” she said.
Parish works together, starting with religious education students
The parish ensures the work of sharing food and service is intentionally linked to worship.
Joyce Lewis is one of the early organizers of the program. The Atlanta lawyer said the Shrine highlighted how it is not only the ritual of Mass that fulfills people, but how faith and service go hand in hand.
“You show through your work and efforts you are a member of the community and a child of God,” she said.
The sorting begins following Mass as the sanctuary becomes a hub for service to others. Families with young, enthusiastic volunteers work in an assembly-line fashion to empty the grocery bags of gravy, cake mix and canned corn and green beans. Folks then packed the goods into cardboard boxes, decorated with Thanksgiving greetings by the religious education students.
Turkeys are the centerpieces for these nearly 200 holiday meals, accompanied by all the traditional sides. Half of the birds were a donation by Jimmy Talbert, a parishioner at St. Benedict Church, Duluth, and his company Talbert Deli Provisions.
For high school freshman Stephen Griggs, the hour of work is part of what it means to belong to the community. He said while as a young person he cannot afford to shop for all the food, he is able to help ensure people are able to get the meals for their families. Griggs, a Midtown High School student, in the past year persuaded his family to return to the church community after being away because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel I am a member of the community because I am able to help out,” he said.
That’s part of the feeling of attending the Shrine, he said, which is an “amazing community center for people who like gathering in joy and giving.”
Parish collaborating with other agencies
Doug and Amy Wayco come to the church from Conyers. They love the welcoming attitude of the parish and participate in the many outreach ministries, he said.
“We are so blessed. We don’t know why, but we are,” said Doug. “The right thing to do is to help others,” he said, pausing from sorting gravy from the canned vegetables.
The outreach work is a collaboration with the Atlanta Community Food Bank and the deputies with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office. The law enforcement officers pick up about 100 baskets, store them, and then are responsible to distribute the food by Thursday. Seventy-five clients of the parish’s community market are to receive a holiday meal and 25 will go to families at the Barack and Michelle Obama Academy public school.
Captain Aprille Moore, the unit commander of community engagement in the sheriff’s department, said the families tell her and colleagues how the baskets “lift a burden from them financially.” They may not be able to afford the items if someone hadn’t thought of them, she said.
The dinner baskets were headed to four housing complexes for older people in Sandy Springs and Atlanta neighborhoods, she said. These residents are vulnerable, and sometimes alone, so it is good to check in on them and this helps them stay connected, said Moore.
Parish staff member Joseph Sequeira said because of the people’s generosity, the dinner boxes are always full. The many leftovers that do not make it into the Thanksgiving boxes will go to stock the shelves in the parish community market that is now attracting and serving more people.
There is never a shortfall of people desiring to help with this project because it is a way for families to help others they will never meet, said Sequeira. The sharing of time and money at this event is a reminder how people like to share, and work together, which is sometimes too easily forgotten, he said.