Hot supper serves as lesson of holiday

Sharing: Members of a West Baltimore church offer their annual Christmas dinner as a way to give back to the community.

December 29, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The Bible tells how Jesus fed thousands of people with just a few fish and loaves of bread. The story is meant to show Jesus' miracle-making power, and also to teach a fundamental lesson in compassion.

The Rev. Henry B. Hunt and members of Mount Hebron Memorial Church of God in Christ have taken that moral to heart.

Yesterday, as they have done for nine years, the church members opened the doors of Heaven's Gate Eatery, a church subsidiary, offering a free sit-down Christmas dinner for anyone who wanted to come.

Church members in their Sunday best served community members wrapped in winter coats heaping plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing and hot rolls.

At 3 p.m., when dinner began, the restaurant was half full. But word quickly spread, thanks in part to Hunt's grass-roots advertising methods.

"Anybody want a meal?" he yelled up and down North Avenue, waving his arms in the air. "Come on in!"

Later, Hunt drove around, picking up people and bringing them to the restaurant.

William Wilson, 23, and his wife, aunt and 3-year-old daughter were walking the streets when Hunt picked them up and told them to come have a hot meal, Wilson said.

"He's the first one I've ever seen riding around telling people that," Wilson said. "If there were more people like him out here, everything would be all right. Things would be much better around here."

Mount Hebron Memorial serves a needy West Baltimore community, said Hunt's wife, Doris E. Hunt. The church doesn't have much, besides religion, to offer those who come to the church doors in need of help.

But the church can feed the hungry, the Hunts said, and try to feed their souls, too.

"It's our way of helping the community," said Henry Hunt, 52. "There's so many people who don't have the opportunity to get a good meal. ... A church ought to be able to give back."

The free dinners began one block away in the church's kitchen on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Four years ago, they moved to Heaven's Gate Eatery, 1825 N. Smallwood St., a neighborhood soul food restaurant run by the church. Today, more than 800 people come for Thanksgiving dinner and 500 or more come to eat Christmas dinner.

Before yesterday's meal, Hunt offered a prayer.

"Bless these folks as they come through the door, some with this care, some with that concern," he said, facing the crowd.

Hunt knows most who come for the free meal share two things: empty bellies and heavy burdens.

Like Reya Johnson, 32, whose 16-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting in March. Johnson's grief has overtaken her appetite since then, but she thought she ought to eat to stay strong through the holidays and her son's coming birthday.

"It's hard," Johnson said, barely touching her plate. "But it's nice that they do this."

Loneliness brought Lee Guy, 54, to Heaven's Gate. More than eight years ago, he ended a relationship with a woman, he said, and so now has no one to cook for him.

"I try to do it myself and it's hard," he said. "But I'll survive, thanks to places like this."

Willie Brooks, 50, came just because she was hungry, she said, as she ran out with her plate of food to catch the city bus.

Some came in twice. A few came in three times.

"That's fine," Hunt said. "I just want them to eat."

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