The big day had finally arrived! Grandma had been working for weeks on the food for the Thanksgiving meal. She had been organizing and shopping and double-checking her list to make sure that everything would go perfectly! She had sent grandson Zach out to the workshop to get the leaves for the dining room table, so that there would be plenty of elbow room for all, as she stood there with her spiral notebook full of notes.
Zach got the last leaf in and laughed when he looked up at Grandma. “Is that the map?” he asked with a wry smile. Grandma had a plan for everything, including where the food would be set on the table so it would all fit. She had a drawing that she used for all of the dishes and where they would go. She stood there like a field general, commanding her soldiers where to put each dish. There was a plan for everything! She was so proud of that table, and the family who would sit around it. For her, the dining room table was a symbol of being together at the holidays, and of the abundance that they shared together.
“Yes, it is the map, and it just reminded me that I forgot the cranberry sauce. Your mom has a soft spot in her heart for the old fashioned stuff in a can.”
Zach wrinkled his nose. “The stuff that comes out with a big slurp and has the indentations of the can on the side of it? Gross.”
Grandma smiled as she went to the pantry. She knew that she had a couple of cans of cranberry, and knew right where they were.
She went into the laundry room where the pantry was, checked the pies laid out on the washer and drier for evidence of tampering, and turned toward the pile of cans. She pulled back the curtain, saw shelf after shelf of the canned goods, and she burst into tears…
Immediately, the family busy with preparations in the kitchen rushed into the pantry to find out what had happened. They were afraid that Grandma had fallen or cut herself on one of the cans. But they found her perfectly OK, standing in the dark, sobbing. Of course, they were all worried about her, and rushed to help her find a seat at the dining room table. Someone brought a glass of water and they all asked what was wrong.
Grandma told her story.
“I guess the cans just reminded me of the church. It felt like the food pantry in the old days, and it made me sad.” Everyone knew how important the food pantry was to Grandma. She and Grandpa had started the pantry themselves years and years ago. It was a place where the people of the community could go and get a few groceries for their family. But it was more than a handout; it was a family. Grandma had over the years developed a relationship with many of the recipients of the pantry. Some of them were homeless. Others struggled to pay the rent. “Baptist Betty,” they called her. And she had many of them on speed dial. Because they trusted her and she trusted them. She cared for them. She loved them. She used to say, “they are just people like us, just at a different point of a different journey.” With fresh tears in her eyes, she began to tell the story.
“About a year ago, there was a robbery at the church. They didn’t steal much, but it made people nervous. Before anyone had any evidence or any reason to suspect them, some of the members of the church council suspected that it was the recipients of the food pantry. Some had been looking for a way to shut down the pantry anyway. Many of them resented the people who came to the pantry, suggesting that they were just lazy or even worse, dangerous. This was exactly the reason that they were looking for. They cut the budget for the pantry way back, and the money was gone by June. I tried for several months to make a go of it. I asked for donations, even brought my own canned goods from home. But the pressure to close the pantry became too much. Council members gave me dirty looks every time they saw me. One day after Sunday school, I was headed to worship when I overheard a couple of them talking. Something about ‘Bleeding Heart Betty” and how much she wastes on ‘those people.’ It broke my heart. Pastor Mike wasn’t exactly on their side, but these were some of the biggest givers in the church. He felt like he was stuck. Last week was the last food pantry. This past Sunday, he told me that I needed to turn in my church key.”
“I thought I had gotten over it. But then this morning I read in my devotions about the scribes walking about in their robes, worrying about their reputations and seats of honor. All I could think about was the preacher in his robe and the council members all sitting on the front row who didn’t want their church to have what they thought was a bad reputation because of who walked in the front doors. And then when I read the rest of the story, about the widow giving the last of her money for the Temple tax, it felt like a punch to the gut. I am the widow! This was the last two copper pennies that I could give to this church. I can’t pledge much. I can’t get down on the floor to teach the kids Sunday school anymore. This was all I had left. And like the scribes devouring the homes of the widows, they took that from me and it was all I had to give.”
There was silence for a moment, as the weight of Grandma’s story sunk in.
Then everyone talked at once. Some came over to hug Grandma and tell her how sorry they were. Others told her not to worry about it, that it was Thanksgiving and time to celebrate. Still others remembered the food on the stove and ran back to the kitchen to make sure nothing was burning.
It was Jeff, though, in the corner, who didn’t move. He was standing there, thinking. And after a few more moments of activity around the table, Grandma caught his eye.
“Mom,” he said in a rather loud voice. “I don’t feel bad for you. I feel angry. I wish I could speak my mind to those council members right now. But since they are probably at home enjoying their own families, I guess I can’t.” By this point, most of the rest of the family had stopped to listen to him, as he asked Grandma another question. “Do you still have that church key?” Grandma nodded. Jeff looked at the table, filling up with food, and with a voice of resolution asked, “then what do you say we throw one last food pantry party for your friends?” Everyone froze at the suggestion. They couldn’t imagine what Jeff was suggesting. I mean, this is Thanksgiving after all. Every eye turned to Grandma, who just smiled and nodded.
Within five minutes, the field general was back at her post. This time, she was directing the food to be wrapped up in tinfoil and Glad wrap. And “Baptist Betty” was on the phone to the food pantry crew. The recipients, her friends, many of them had nowhere to go on the holiday. Some were invited to extended family, but many had worn out their welcome and were basically alone on Thanksgiving. A phone call or a text from Baptist Betty was honey to their ears. The grandchildren came in from football ready to eat and were more than a little confused. “Wait, where are we going?” The response: “we are eating Thanksgiving at Grandma’s church this year, and we have invited some new friends.” The table was empty – again – and most of the food was loaded up when Grandma walked by the pantry again. The cans. She grabbed the grandkids and told them to put everything in boxes. Every scrap of food that they could find in the pantry. It was all going to the church.
The caravan sped across town to the church, except for the ones who had the jello molds…they took the corners real slow. Everyone else jumped out of the cars and began unloading the food. Several of Grandma’s food pantry friends were already there and waiting. They helped get the food out of the cars and set up tables in the fellowship hall. The grandkids were still a little confused, but mostly excited to run around the church and play with some new kids who had come to the party.
The food was set up, and the cans were placed by the front door to give away later. Everyone sat down at the table, and there was total silence, as Grandma – or Baptist Betty – said grace. Then, the raucous party continued. Everyone was passing food, family to new friends, and vice versa. There was plenty of food to go around, of course…the family always made so much that there would be leftovers for days. And there was plenty of laughter to go around. It was perhaps the most memorable Thanksgiving that any of them had had.
At some point in the chaos, the front door opened and Pastor Mike slipped in, almost unnoticed. His eyes were as big as saucers, and he was more confused than any of the grandkids. But then his eyes met Grandma’s, and he understood. He disappeared into his office. Grandma never saw him leave. It was only later that one of the grandkids asked, “who was that man taking everyone’s pictures on his phone?” Grandma’s heart sunk. The pictures were already on the way to the council member’s phones, she imagined. But there wasn’t much more she had to lose, so she just had another piece of pie!
The party wrapped up, and all of Grandma’s food was given out. There were hardly any leftovers this year. Even all of the gross cranberry in a can was all gone. After everyone sat around the tables and the kids played out front, it was finally time to pack everything away and head home. There was the big football game to play, of course, back in Grandma’s yard. The grandkids asked their new friends to come and play, and a couple of them agreed. After the kickoff, Grandma slipped inside for a quiet moment or two. She sat down at the dining room table, this time with the lights out. She was worn out, but happy. She could not imagine a better way to spend the holiday.
The phone rang. The caller ID said it was Pastor Mike’s number. Grandma almost didn’t answer it…couldn’t he wait until the day after Thanksgiving to chew her out? But she picked up and said hello.
“Good evening Betty,” came Pastor Mike’s voice on the other end of the phone. “Forgive me for calling on the holiday, but I wanted to talk to you for a moment. I know you saw me at the church today. I ran in to grab some papers, and I am glad I did. It took me a minute to figure out what was happening, and when I did, I sat in my office for a long time. Betty, I was wrong. What I saw today is exactly what the Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to be like. I know some people won’t be happy, but I am reinstating the food pantry into the budget of the church; if there isn’t enough, they can take it out of my salary. It’s just the right thing to do. I am sorry that I doubted you and your ministry, but I am glad that I got to see it in action today. And the rest of the congregation will, too. I took some pictures before I left and they are already in the draft for the newsletter that goes out Sunday. Everyone needs to see what incredible generosity looks like.”
Grandma was speechless. She mumbled a “thank you,” as he wrapped up.
“Well, look,” Pastor Mike continued, “I won’t keep you any longer on Thanksgiving, but I just wanted you to know how thankful I am for you and your ministry. God bless.”
Betty hung up the phone. She sat in silence. The widow’s home had been returned. She rubbed her hand across the wood on the dining room table. The table was empty. But her heart was full.