As the sun set on Christmas 2013, hundreds of people lined the sidewalk on Sumter Street near the city’s transit station.
There, they waited for a warm meal and a gift bag filled with socks, toiletries and candy distributed by Columbia’s Keepin’ It Real Ministries.
Volunteers served heaping helpings of home-cooked food. The dishes could be found on almost any table at a Southern Christmas dinner – turkey and ham, dressing, succotash, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese.
For Samantha Tucker and her 11 children and grandchildren, the food was a blessing. They live in a rented apartment that has been overtaken by mold, she said. Cooking worsens breathing problems for several people in the family.
When Tucker learned during a Sunday worship service about Keepin’ It Real’s meal, she decided that is how the family would dine for the holiday.
“We needed to get out and get something together without stress,” she said.
Tucker also hoped the experience taught her young ones a lesson.
“There is always someone worse off than you,” she said. “You can’t complain about what you have.”
Keepin’ It Real Ministries has been serving the evening Christmas meal for several years. It is one of several meals offered on Christmas Day for the city’s homeless.
Nineteen-year-old Walter Slice, who lives at the Transitions shelter along Elmwood Avenue, shoveled macaroni and cheese into his mouth as he sat on a bench outside the transit station. He had eaten three Christmas meals thanks to Keepin’ It Real, Trinity Episcopal Church and St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
“With all of the nice meals they’ve been serving around town, I will be full tonight,” Slice said.
Oscar Gadsden, the pastor, started his ministry more than eight years ago when he was homeless. He no longer lives on the streets but serves those who do.
“I’m a child of God,” Gadsden said. “God said, ‘What you do for the least of these, you also do for me.”
As he greeted the hungry, a woman stopped to thank him.
“You outdid yourself this year,” she said.
“God is good,” he replied.
Gadsden estimated he and his volunteers served about 350 meals in about 1.5 hours on Wednesday evening. Volunteers cook the food and donate the small gifts.
Kim Noonan of Chapin brought her parents and three children downtown to help. She handed out candy canes as her 15-year-old daughter, Lizzy, gave people small, wooden carvings with inspirational messages etched on them.
“I wanted to teach my kids that it’s good to give back,” Noonan said. “What they have is nice and a luxury.”
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.