Every Wednesday, like clockwork, the Haywood Street Congregation, based in the brick church at the corner of Patton Avenue and Haywood Street, offers a family-style lunch and rollicking worship service that nourishes the bodies and souls of many members of Asheville’s homeless population, along with other residents from all walks of life. All attendees seem to be drawn not only to the free, hot meal, but equally to the congregation’s warm feeling of community and spirit of acceptance.
Recently, Haywood Street volunteer Ann Merritt, who has dedicated herself to photographing and collecting the life stories of the congregation’s homeless members, took time to ask a few of them, as well as Haywood Street pastor Rev. Shannon Spencer and a fellow volunteer, to share their Thanksgiving memories with Xpress readers. Their stories follow, as told to Merritt:
Barbara Bates Smith
Award-winning actress, storyteller and Haywood Street volunteer Barbara Bates Smith shares her own Thanksgiving food tale:
I remember having aspirations of creating memorable Thanksgiving traditions for my family. Starting with the meal, of course. … Well, food preparation has never been my long suit, but I had a great concept — gleaned from the Norman Rockwell cover on The Saturday Evening Post: the family gathered around the table, holding hands, Russell blessing the sumptuous spread laid out before us — laid out by me, of course. ... But upon extracting my gourmet dressing from the oven — and dropping it all over the kitchen floor — for two years in a row, the sumptuous spread has grown ever simpler. I now proudly purchase the prepared, packaged Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix and shove it into that bird, not even dirtying an extra dish!
Gerri lives with her husband, Garland; they became homeless when he lost his job. She said she has been camping with him in a tent since April. She finds it especially hard because of her very poor health. Among other problems, she suffers severe seizures as a result of head trauma from an abusive relationship with the father of her last child.
She has had four children: an 18-year-old (who lives with her mother), a 16-year-old (who was placed for adoption when he was a baby) and 5- and 7-year-olds who are in foster care awaiting adoption. She is giving them up because of her health and inability to properly care for them, and she wants a better life for them than she knows she can provide. She mentioned that she loves them so much, and this was a most difficult decision; she “just wants what’s best for them."
Gerri, her twin sister, and an older sister grew up in Iowa with their single mother, who "worked hard to put food on the table and keep the family together.” She recalled that her father was an alcoholic and frequently abused her mother and all the children.
She said her mother was a good cook and always did the cooking for Thanksgiving dinner. Gerri especially looked forward to the ham and a special green-bean casserole, but said they "usually had turkey and sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top too." Usually it was just her mother and sisters there, but they sometimes went to other relatives’ homes after dinner. Gerri mentioned that they were close and that they were "especially grateful to have food for Thanksgiving, because we sometimes went without.”
Her mother taught her to cook too — "country, Mexican and Italian foods mostly." Her mom is coming for a visit near the end of this month, and Gerri is excited about that.
Brian, disabled from a wreck at age 15, is now homeless. When asked to share special Thanksgiving memories, he recalled walking down the street in Asheville, wondering what he was going to do, when a man in a pickup drove by and told him to go to Haywood Street UMC for Thanksgiving dinner. He did, and said he enjoyed "some of the best turkey and stuffing" he ever had. Brian says Haywood Street Congregation is "such a great blessing in my life every week. … I am so thankful for what y'all do here at Haywood!"
Then he talked about how his family always gathered for a huge Thanksgiving meal when he was a child. “We always had turkey, a huge turkey, the biggest turkey you’ve ever seen, and sometimes even a ham.” There were lots of side items, including dressing, cranberry sauce, banana pudding and his favorite, apple pie.
There were five in his family, but when you added the grandparents and other family, they usually had about 25 for dinner. He recalled that his mother and three aunts did most of the cooking, though everyone brought something to share. He thinks his grandparents usually contributed the turkey. Brian said it was always “such a blessing just to be together for Thanksgiving.”
“Even if you are homeless, you can always get a Thanksgiving meal in Asheville,” Bob says. Many of the churches provide them, and “people actually drive around town and hand out plates of food on Thanksgiving.” Bob noted that Haywood UMC “has been great to provide a meal every year.”
Bob has been homeless for 13 years and sleeps in a tent even in winter. He said he always looked forward to Thanksgiving as a child. He has only one sibling, a brother, but said they always had a crowd of other family and friends to share the Thanksgiving meal. Their menu usually included the basics: turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and green beans. “Oh, and cranberry sauce, you know, where you grind up the cranberries and the orange peel all together — I like it like that,” Bob concluded.
Radisa John Bosiljkanovic
Born in Bosnia to parents who were Communists, John says they did not celebrate any Christian holidays in their home, nor was there even a Bible in the house. His first and most pleasant memory of Thanksgiving is of going to his grandparents’ when he was 8 or 9 years old. His grandfather was born in Bosnia in 1896, before the Communist takeover, so he was a Christian who celebrated all the holidays.
John remembered fondly the huge Thanksgiving dinner, prepared by his grandmother who cooked “all day long.” There were 12 children in the family, so it was a rather large gathering. John said for the main dish they slaughtered a goose off the farm, then added “tons of other foods,” including pumpkin and lots of vegetables. He especially recalled all the pies. John says he thanks God every single day for the influence of his grandparents on his life.
When he was 37, he came to the United States and says he has “loved every day of it.” Even though he is homeless now, he feels this is just a temporary thing and says he is “hoping to accomplish something a whole lot bigger than this.” He is trusting God, who he is convinced has a special plan for his life.
Rachel Pope (a.k.a. Rose or Butterfly)
Rachel has a degree in recreational therapy from East Carolina and has worked in many different fields. Unfortunately, her vehicle took the brunt of a collision with an oil truck about 20 years ago in California, and she suffered a traumatic head injury that left her with permanent memory problems. However, she does have some memories of her childhood. She especially likes the nickname she gave herself, Butterfly, because she feels that when life overwhelms, "God sometimes wraps you up in His arms, like a cocoon, so you can rest."
When asked to share some memories of Thanksgiving, she immediately mentioned her mother's “best-ever sweet potato casserole, with pecans and marshmallows on top.” Her dad was diabetic, so he had to remove the toppings. She said her mother also made "some of the best big buttermilk biscuits and creamed corn" for the Thanksgiving dinner.
She laughingly told the story of how one year her PaPa decided to raise a turkey and made it a point to tell the children not to talk to the turkey or make him a pet. Of course the children did, and when Thanksgiving time came and PaPa served his turkey, no one would eat a bite of it! She also fondly recalled gathering food from the garden before sunrise. Her grandmother would call them to get out of bed about 5 a.m., always telling them, “It’s getting on toward 8:30!”
The congregation will serve Thanksgiving dinner 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 27. Many local homeless individuals will be cooking and serving the meal, as well as eating it. Look for turkey, butternut squash, cranberries and pie on the menu. All members of the community are welcome to attend.
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