'It's just what we do': Dallastown church serves more than 200 on Christmas
A Dallastown church was serving more than a free meal on Christmas — it was offering a community.
"The instructions I was given was to make everyone happy, whatever they need, you go get it," said Stephen Gruber, a volunteer helping serve residents on Tuesday, Dec. 25.
As roughly 200 people came through the doors of the church, they were welcomed with open arms and a cheerful "Merry Christmas" before being seated at one of the festively decorated tables.
This was the eighth year that Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Dallastown hosted its free Christmas meal at 11 a.m.
While most people were at home sleeping, waiting to wake up and unwrap gifts under a tree, volunteers were already setting up. By 4 a.m., volunteers were in the church kitchen, preparing festive sides and more than 20 turkeys to feed those who might have nowhere else to turn.
"It's just one of those things, it's not even optional. It's just what we do," said the Rev. Sean Garner, pastor of the church.
The church is located in a neighborhood and doesn't take its location for granted. The church aims to split its efforts 50/50 — helping to build up both the church and the community it sits in, Garner said.
"When people call us and say 'we don't have any food for Christmas,' we have a place to go," he said.
Volunteers: Each year, the event grows in size, according to volunteers. The first year there were about 25 to 30 people, said Jerry and Lois Herwig.
Jerry Herwig has been volunteering at the meal for six years and Lois Herwig for four.
"It warms our hearts," Jerry Herwig said.
The church also serves EMS and police in the area who are working on Christmas, he said.
Not all the volunteers are members of the church; some are community members looking to give back, Lois Herwig said.
Lois Herwig said she's seen familiar faces return each year she's been volunteering, and there are some who have been coming for even longer.
Company: Carrie Mitzel said she's been attending to the church's meal for seven years.
Mitzel said she's grateful for the wonderful meal that's served and for the company she's found to share it with.
"It means a lot to me to have a meal with family and friends," she said. "I lost my husband, and I met a lot of nice people here, people with no place to go."
The residents aren't the only ones who find comfort in the community event.
Lori Breen said she has been volunteering at the meal since the first year, missing just one while she was away on vacation.
With her children grown, Breen said the church's event gives her a way to spend Christmas morning now that she isn't watching her kids open gifts.
"It's nice to be able to come and help other people," she said. "It's tradition."