Providence And Peanuts

Sales before O's games help keep a tiny congregation going

April 18, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Sometimes the members of the Old Otterbein United Methodist Church can't help but talk about divine intervention.

Somehow a gleaming new ballpark - Oriole Park at Camden Yards - was plopped down at the end of the street where the church has stood since 1785. Somehow a member named Edith Parthree thought to bring little bags of peanuts to sell at, of all things, a strawberry festival nearly 13 years ago. And when they didn't sell, a few guys from the church somehow thought they could earn a few bucks if they took a shot at the folks streaming by outside on the way to that day's baseball game.

"A lot of us say it's a gift from God," says Dan Fisher, the 20-year-old chairman of the church council.

Since 1992, during every Orioles home game - except those on Sundays, of course - members have stood on the sidewalk outside the church's wrought-iron fence and hawked peanuts like old pros. One dollar a bag. Same price as it was the day they started ("$3.75 inside the park," they'll tell you in their well-practiced patter, even though they're not sure of that anymore. When was the last time any of them went to a game? They're too busy out here.)

In metal garbage cans sit piles of neatly wrapped bags of peanuts: plain in the wax paper bags; salted in the brown. They have sold more than 300,000 bags of peanuts over the years, with the proceeds going toward the upkeep of their brick house of worship.

There'd be little money otherwise. The church's aging membership numbers just 88, with only about 30 truly active members.

"We've made a lot of money, put the new roof on the church - peanuts did that," says Mary Goings, who married her husband, Doug, inside in 1946. "Peanuts painted the whole church, put in air conditioning. Peanuts did it all - a church restored by peanuts."

Peanuts helped pay for new carpet. Peanuts helped restore the old organ. And if they keep selling, peanuts will help reglaze the church's 900-plus window panes - some of them original - and repaint the exterior.

"Isn't it beautiful?" Mary Goings asks.

Wednesdays are packing days here inside the church's fellowship hall. The old-timers, clad in bright-yellow T-shirts declaring themselves the church's "peanut packers," arrive about 10 a.m. There's music on the boom box - usually polkas at first to get them going, slower religious music or Elvis as the time wears on - and there is serious work to be done.

The peanuts arrive from a vendor in Timonium in 25-pound bags. Those nuts will fit into 55 to 60 smaller ones just right for sale. The peanuts are poured into custom-made troughs with screens at the bottom to filter out dirt. Then, using empty peanut butter jars, each bag is filled with a single scoop of nuts. The top is folded over and each bag is carefully placed in a black garbage bag, set aside for the next game.

In two hours, they can pack 700 pounds of peanuts.

Nothing gets in the way of peanut packing day. "We don't even take doctor's appointments - not on Wednesdays," says Michaux Grammer, 83, who has been a member of Old Otterbein for 70 years.

After packing is done, the group, still in yellow shirts, heads to the Old Country Buffet in Glen Burnie for lunch. The hostess there once mistook them for a bowling team.

There's no relaxing during baseball season. And there's certainly no downtime when the New York Yankees are in town. That's when they sell the most peanuts. Church members figure it's because Yankee fans are wild about their peanuts. Or it could be just that the Orioles sell a whole lot more tickets when the men in pinstripes take the field. On Friday night, they made $591 (compared with less than $100 on a rainy night when a West Coast team comes to the city). On Saturday, they made $622.

June Risley, a retired financial adviser, is working the crowd. A bag of peanuts in each hand, she waves them in the air, working on her spiel. "Did you get your peanuts?" she asks a couple as they walk by. "I've got some here," responds the woman, tapping on her Louis Vuitton bag.

The church runs the first stand on Conway Street on the way from the Inner Harbor to the stadium, which explains all the out-of-towners streaming by. Many are from New York so they can't believe the peanuts are just $1 a bag. Then they are even more shocked. On Saturday it was the church's version of Customer Appreciation Day, with bags at two for $1. And, to top it off, the church is giving away hot dogs (so suspicious does that sound that few are even taking the hawkers up on the offer).

Sometimes the police working the church's corner send people along the far crosswalk. That starts happening on Saturday, so Risley heads out into the street to chat with the officer. Risley asks the officer to please send a little extra business her way (oh, and by the way, the church has free hot dogs today).

Risley and the others love to see so many people come by, so many young people. They stop to buy the peanuts - and sometimes just to make a donation without even taking a bag of nuts.

Risley tries to make a sale to a man wearing a Yankees hat. "We've already got some," he says.

"Well enjoy the game," she says with a smile.

"Thank you, ma'am," comes the reply.

Risley turns away. "I don't care how drunk they get," she says. "They're always polite."

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