They prayed twice at Thanksgiving dinner at Catholic Charities in Chicago on Thursday: first to bless the volunteers about to serve heaping plates to 200 people and again over the food once the guests had assembled.
The Rev. Wayne Watts also roused his troops — about 40 adults and children — with a pep talk about treating them like their own Thanksgiving guests.
“I think the most important thing that you can do today is smile and welcome the guests,” Watts said. “So many of our guests are on the street and they’re ignored. I spend a lot of time with one particular guest and we walk around the neighborhood, and people run from us. . . . They don’t treat him like a normal human being, and he is.”
Watts set two workers at each table to pour water and coffee and take care of the guests.
Wearing plastic gloves and aprons, Bertina Harris Palm and her son, Pres Harris, filled pitchers. They have served dinners for the past few Thanksgivings, he said, even though they are not Catholic.
“We just enjoy serving, and so that’s why we’re here,” he said.
“I’m a helper,” his mother added. “I like helping.”
The hall at Catholic Charities headquarters, 721 N. LaSalle, was decorated with homemade signs.
Nate Gillespie, 18, and his sister, Ella, 9, played the piano while their parents did kitchen work.
Hand-drawn cards adorned each place setting.
“Dear friends, I hope you have a good Thanksgiving,” one read. “It may seem like no one is thinking about you, but I am. So are my fellow classmates. You are so strong. You are so tough to keep moving forward. Always remember that there is someone thinking about you.”
About 200 people who had waited in line in the rain were served their fill of traditional fare plus a choice of pies.
“I’m blessed to be alive,” said Kenny Knight, who sat next to his older brother at a table, both in neat dark suit jackets and slacks. The brothers figured they had been coming to Catholic Charities for about 15 years.
The younger brother said he depended on services when he was homeless. “It’s been a great help to me,” the 59-year-old said. “I can come and get help and support.”
Catholic Charities also feeds about 200 people every weeknight, serving dinner in the hall to about 130 people and packing up meals to send out to the rest, Watts said. Many of the holiday volunteers come from his parish, St. John Berchmans Parish in Logan Square, where he is pastor. This dinner — so much food that seconds went around — came courtesy of Chicago Cut Steakhouse on La Salle.
Judah Baker was introduced to Catholic Charities about seven years ago while homeless. Now he’s living in Lincoln Park and married for five years to his wife, Chrissy. “Five wonderful years,” he said, holding her hand.
“After I got a job and got off the streets and everything, I kept coming,” he said. “It’s just the environment.”
“I’ve never been anywhere like this. It’s just very warm,” she said. “And it’s like the volunteers give a part of themselves. They don’t need to be here today.”
Twelve-year-old Jose Velgara quickly figured out how to carry two hot plates at a time as adults in the assembly line filled each one: A thick slice of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, hot gravy from a metal saucepan, yams, green beans and cranberries from a giant punch bowl. Young volunteers balanced a roll on top and added butter and salt and pepper. Children also walked around with dessert plates: apple or pumpkin pie plus a cookie on top.
Jose said his family tries to do some kind of service together on Thanksgiving, sometimes delivering food to the homeless.
“I like it,” said the youngest of six children. “It shows me how thankful I am and how it is good to give.”
Cecilia Moreno, 7, also managed to hand out a couple of plates before deciding they were too hot. It was their first Thanksgiving serving others, said her mom, Claudia.
When dinner was done, the ladies posted themselves at the door to hand out boxes of candy.
Monsignor Mike Boland, who heads Catholic Charities, stood nearby, greeting guests.
“Especially with the troubles in the city and the world,” he said, “it’s good to see goodness.”