Churches, Ministries Reach Out to Needy on Thanksgiving and Beyond

Whether it's a turkey leg or a leg up for those in search for their next job, many churches and ministries nationwide are reminding those in need this Thanksgiving that they're here to help.

Many churches will be joining with local volunteers to offer free Thanksgiving meals to the needy as a way to connect with those in the community.

"I believe that God expects the church to meet people in a very practical way," said Rev. Kevin Merritt of Stepney Baptist Church in Monroe, Conn., according to the Monroe Courier newspaper.

The church served an early Thanksgiving meal this past Sunday to celebrate the grand opening of its food pantry — a new addition that the church hopes will help spread God's message of love.

"Christ's Gospel teaches us to serve our neighbors without any strings attached. We are thrilled to be able to do this," said Merritt.

That sentiment was also shared by Jim Stady, pastor of Bible Baptist Church in Gulfport, Miss.

"Jesus said, 'When you do this unto the least of these, you've done it unto me,'" Stady told WLOX News. "So that's what we're trying to do, just to reach out and show people the love of Christ."

Knowing that many churches and charities would be providing meals on Thanksgiving Day, Stady said they decided to hold their dinner outreach a day early.

"We just have so much to be thankful for," he said. "God has been so good to us as a church, and even as a community. We realize there are still a lot of families that are hurting as a result of [Hurricane] Katrina, even though it's been a couple of years now. And this is just an opportunity for us, as a church community, to let people know as long as there's God, there's hope and there's help."

Sabrina Goodwin expressed her gratitude for the holiday meal, especially since her family just found a job after a month and a half of searching.

"Financially, we've got a back pay for everything. So I really appreciate this and thank the Lord for it," she told WLOX News.

The tradition of Thanksgiving traces dates back to 1621, the year the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful autumn harvest. They praised God and celebrated with a feast shared with the Wampanoag Indians.

Pilgrim Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by both the Pilgrims and Native Americans.

The first official Thanksgiving Proclamation made in America was issued by the Continental Congress in 1777. In 1789, President George Washington became the first to declare Thanksgiving a holiday.

Berkeley Plantation in Virginia claims the nation's first official Thanksgiving was in 1619, when a group of British settlers knelt in prayer of thanks for a healthy arrival across the Atlantic.

On Monday, President Bush visited the site and urged Americans to commemorate the Thanksgiving Day by expressing gratitude to those who "serve in a cause larger than themselves" and by aiding the less fortunate.

"As we count our many blessings, I encourage all Americans to show their thanks by giving back," he said.

Some outreach groups say they hope the Thanksgiving outreaches will encourage the community to be more involved in charity works yearlong.

Sharon Burton, who volunteers with Cafe of Life, an organization in Bonita Springs, Fla., that offers free meals and assistance to the poor and homeless five days a week, noted the need to reach out beyond the November holiday.

"People always seem to jump on Thanksgiving, but people need to eat every day," she told Naples Daily News.