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Mississippi church provides community Thanksgiving dinner, with a side of sweet faith

Michelle Benjamin, a member of First Baptist Church in Pontotoc, Miss., shows off her pan of sweet potato casserole alongside Pastor Ken Hester.

PONTOTOC, Miss. (BP) – Going back at least a quarter-century, First Baptist Church has called on its people to deliver a Thanksgiving meal for those unable to be with family or cook one on their own. From Day 1, however, church members have been required to contribute a staple from their own kitchen.

Sure, this particular dish can be served throughout the year. But when you’re in the five-county area self-described as the Sweet Potato Capital of the World, it’s time to walk that talk come the fourth Thursday each November.

“Our goal is to show love and compassion to shut-ins and those who may not be able to afford a meal,” said Ken Hester, First Baptist’s pastor since 2000. “This reaches across all kinds of denominational, economic and racial lines and is great at unifying the community.”

Something that began as an outreach exclusively through First Baptist has grown to include several churches in the area. The Thursday before Thanksgiving, volunteers deliver meals consisting of turkey and dressing, string beans, a roll, dessert and, of course, sweet potato casserole.

The Feeding of the 5,000, as the outreach is called, refers back to Jesus feeding a crowd in need. The number itself, though, isn’t the most important aspect for the outreach effort.

“We strive to reach through the compassion of Jesus rather than the number,” Hester said. “The key for us is to look beyond ourselves and actually see with divine compassion on the need in front of us.

“We can easily get caught up in our own lives and miss the needs of our neighbors. The Feeding of the 5,000 enables us to travel outside our social circles and love on those around us with a practical expression of God’s love.”

In its early years, 500-700 meals would be passed throughout the community. That number has grown and fluctuates around the 3,000 mark now. On Nov. 18, the event provided 2,784 meals. First Baptist supplies most of the funding, with other churches helping.

The sweet potato contribution is a matter of faith, Hester added.

“We trust that the Lord is going to take care of that. If we take the faith element out of this, it kind of takes the richness out of it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve thought we’re going to run out of sweet potato casserole and a car pulls up with someone bringing another pan or two.”

To that end, another lesson learned is not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes they drive a Toyota Crown Royal.

In 2003 it became apparent that morning that there wasn’t enough dressing for the 2,600 meals to be delivered. It wasn’t available nearby, but it was in Memphis, more than 100 miles away.

Church member Floyd McCullough immediately volunteered to retrieve the dishes. He returned three hours later and, in what could easily be the origin story for some kind of Mississippi Santa, drove around to divvy up dressing for those waiting.

Or as Hester described it, there is a much closer tie to Matthew 14, verse 20 in particular.

“He shucked out dressing everywhere,” Hester recalled of McCullough, who has since died. “We were down to our last pan when he arrived, but ended up with one left over at the end of the day. It was fantastic. I get weepy eyes about it.”

The point, he stressed, isn’t to make First Baptist look good. It’s about building up God’s kingdom and letting others know there is a Savior who loves and provides. Adults and children, giving and receiving, experience that message.

“At the end of the day, everyone feels good about it,” Hester said. “People are exhausted, but they know they made a difference.”