The red and blue duffel bags were packed with the assembly-line precision of an automotive plant. With the bags held open by volunteers walking in a circular line, still more volunteers, young and old, filled each with the same contents: a hooded sweatshirt, wool hat, gloves, underwear, socks, toiletries and thermal underwear.
The bags were then put into piles organized by size. Dee Dee Reuwer, one of about 100 volunteers working at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Christmas morning, carried bags on each shoulder, an efficiency also adopted by Kristie Lazich, who at one point moved through the line with four bags.
“See, it’s catching on like wildfire,” Reuwer said.
For 27 years, St. Peter’s along Assembly Street has served dinner to the less fortunate, many of whom are homeless. The Christmas Day event, organized by the church’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul, also provides what amounts to gift bags filled with items donated from various sources. This year, for the first time, children were able to select a toy, provided by Toys For Tots, to take home.
The church’s doors opened at 11 a.m. for food service, but there were people waiting on the steps at least three hours earlier. The line eventually sloped down Taylor Street, as folks, for the most part, chatted peacefully among themselves on a gray morning. (There was a brief altercation in the line early and, after noon, people waiting could be heard arguing. The church stationed volunteers in hallways.) The church expected to serve ham, turkey, green beans and salad to 700 people. Otis Spunkmeyer and Pepsi provided muffins and beverages, respectively.
Inside the church, Kevin Werner shouted instructions like a shift supervisor, rerouting the line as the toiletry station waited to be replenished. Werner, who has been helping since 1996, was one of a number of volunteers who weren’t St. Peter’s parishioners.
“That’s the whole meaning of God’s love, giving until you’ve got no more to give,” he said.
Like a child waiting for Santa Claus, Robert Keeder, the St. Peter’s volunteer coordinator, couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve.
“There are so many parts to this,” said Keeder, who asked volunteers to bake desserts this year. “They get as much out of it as the person receiving it.”
A radio, programmed to WOMG-FM Magic 98.5, filled the church’s Naylia Hall with songs of the season. Several servers wore Santa hats as they scooped portions onto paper plates with the Bojangles’ logo that were carried on orange trays.
After they were done eating, diners could retrieve a bag with a raffle ticket that was handed to them as they walked into the church. Or they could get fitted by Orangeburg Eye Center for a pair of reading glasses donated by Palmetto Optical Laboratory.
“I got to find my ticket,” a woman, who was rifling through her pockets with one hand as she held the hand of a child with the other, said. She found it, meaning she could take the child to pick out a toy, too. “I got scared for a minute.”
St. Peter’s was the second charitable stop for Diane Jones and her boyfriend. They ate breakfast at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, a church on the corner of Sumter and Gervais Streets, they said, before getting to St. Peter’s at 7:15 a.m.
“I enjoy it because I get a chance to fellowship with other people and celebrate Christ’s birthday,” Jones said.
After eating, Cliff Glover and his wife, Elaine, sat on the church steps that led to the sanctuary. They were about 30 yards from where people still waited in line to eat dinner. A few parishioners on their way to mass said “Merry Christmas” to the Glovers.
“They let the handicap in first,” said Cliff Glover, who uses a walker. “Everyone was polite and they even carried my food to the table for me.”
“They did pretty good on the food,” Elaine said as she smoked.
They both clutched their duffel bags as they tried to figure out a way home.