Antioch Baptist Church North Male Chorus member Al McGuire hands a Thanksgiving meal to a woman at the Salvation Army on Nov. 15, 2018, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp
Photo: Branden Camp

Life with Gracie: An early Thanksgiving feast for the least of these

For nearly 350 men, women and children who call the Salvation Army home, Thanksgiving dinner arrived last week, compliments of the Antioch Baptist Church North Ministerial Alliance and the Male Chorus.

It isn’t a particularly unique gesture. Every day across this city too busy to hate, thousands of churches prepare meals for the city’s needy.

Thanksgiving, like Christmas Day, is special, though.

Local food banks say they've had to put families on a waiting list for a Thanksgiving meal.

By the time you’re reading this, the men, women and children, restored by the evening cheer and the notion that someone cared enough to make them dinner, will have returned to their cramped quarters upstairs. And the Rev. Lester Duncan, the man who makes all this possible, will be back home with his wife and children, most likely seated at a table spread with turkey and every side dish imaginable.

God is good.

The early Thanksgiving meal might appear to be about little more than providing sustenance for the day. But for Duncan and the men of Antioch North, serving the least, the less and the lost is much more than that. Simply put, it is in keeping with the church’s mission and Christ’s commission to go into all the world and share the Gospel. Not just on Thanksgiving but every day.

The Rev. Lester Duncan (left), an associate minister at Antioch Baptist Church North, talks with Male Chorus members David Vaughn and Tom Jennings. The Male Chorus helps with the early Thanksgiving dinner that the church prepares for Salvation Army residents. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Duncan told me it began with a conversation between him and the Rev. Scott Copeland, who, along with other preachers before them, had for years been serving up the good news of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection to Salvation Army residents.

Duncan and Copeland, though, wanted to do more.

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As Thanksgiving 2003 approached, they couldn’t help thinking what it might be like for the people attending the agency’s religious services. Men who were away from home and loved ones. Women who had no place to go. And children who were there through no fault of their own.

Let’s do something more for them, he suggested to Copeland.

He baked a turkey, a pan of dressing, and cooked a few side dishes, enough to feed about two dozen.

That night was like gathering with family. For the preacher and those they’d come to serve.

Each year thereafter, the meals and the crowds got bigger. In 2006, Antioch’s singles’ ministry took over the effort, but they soon discovered they needed more hands in the kitchen.

The church’s Male Chorus gladly offered theirs.

And so on the Wednesday before this year’s scheduled meal on Nov. 15, choir members gathered in the church kitchen or at home to prep. They made pans of cornbread dressing. They baked turkeys and hams. They cooked pots of collard greens and candied yams.

Antioch Baptist Church North Male Chorus members prepare a Thanksgiving meal at the Salvation Army on Nov. 15, 2018, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp

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Hours before the meal, one of them arrived to transport food to the Salvation Army’s Lucky Street location just blocks away.

There, after a 30-minute service, complete with selections from the Salvation Army Choir and a sermon, “The Gospel of Christ does not Discriminate,” taken from Romans 10:12-17, they gathered at tables decorated with pumpkins and fall foliage, to break bread and talk awhile.

“This is what families do,” Duncan said, moved by the sight of happy children enjoying plates of turkey and dressing.

“I’m just a sucker for kids,” the father of two said. “Whenever you see them, you automatically want to do more.”

Otis Byrd Jr. leads Antioch Baptist Church North Male Chorus members as they sing a hymn during an early Thanksgiving meal at the Salvation Army on Nov. 15, 2018, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp

Before coming to Antioch, he said, he couldn’t imagine sitting down and eating with the homeless or those fresh out of prison. But Antioch Pastor Cameron Alexander and his son and co-pastor Kenneth Alexander, he said, changed the way he views the poor and downtrodden.

Both, Duncan said, were as comfortable mingling with the poor as they were with the likes of South African President Nelson Mandela, a trait Jesus modeled and was criticized for.

“They treated everyone with love and respect,” Duncan said of Antioch’s pastors.

Last Thursday, the Rev. Duncan broke bread with the least of these, but they may as well have been the Obamas. There was nothing to indicate otherwise.

That alone is enough reason to offer thanks on this Thanksgiving Day.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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