At Thanksgiving, peoples' thoughts have always turned to charity. Year after year, congregations of every kind painstakingly collect tons of food to provide special holiday meals for the needy.
That is the case again this year, according to people who work closely with the poor, but they also say there is something special at work in the Washington area. The kind of charity that used to come almost exclusively at Thanksgiving and Christmas, they say, is giving way to a daily commitment to nurturing the poor.
Last year, for example, members of 62 local religious congregations donated $273,000 worth of meals and $390,000 in time (based on minimum wage) to serve up to 500 persons a day at S.O.M.E. (So Others Might Eat), according to its director, the Rev. John Adams. "That's an increase of approximately 15 percent over the previous year," he said. "It wasn't long ago that we started with a handful of congregations.
"At S.O.M.E., it's Thanksgiving every day," Adams said.
Things are also looking up at Bread for the City, another agency that provides clothes and gives supplemental food to an average of 900 persons per month. "We're getting a lot more individual volunteers, and then they're meeting with the social concerns committees at their churches and synagogues," according to Craig Bahr, a volunteer at the 14th and N streets storefront.
"People are responding to all the publicity about the budget cuts," he said. "We're seeing an outbreak of small food pantries throughout the city" to help the needy get through the month on shrinking allowances.
"It's nothing to open up the mail and get a letter from someone in Omaha, saying, 'I've been reading your bulletin and I like what you're doing for the poor. Here's a check for $500,' " said the Rev. Jack Woodard, pastor at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church on 16th Street.
"More and more people seem to be thinking of charity as a year-round activity," said Woodard. St. Stephen's, assisted with funds from churches and private donors across the nation, feeds an average of 400 persons a day in the church basement. Thursday, Woodard expects 800 needy persons to show up for their annual Thanksgiving dinner.
"Suburban churches are very responsive. When we put out an appeal for funds two months ago, we got everything we needed in return mail immediately," said Woodard. "I've been here three years and I'm amazed at how Washingtonians give thanks by helping others. I was in New York for three years and that's not the way it was there," said Woodard. Today "we'll have station wagons from suburban churches lined up out front delivering enough food to fill our food closet for a couple of months to come," he said.
Many other religious institutions also feed the hungry and run other charitable programs, such as medical clinics, shelters for the homeless and emergency financial aid to the poor.
Adams believes that concern for the poor is growing because now, through agencies such as S.O.M.E., more people are working directly with the poor for the first time. "Usually when people come down and are in contact with the poor people they begin changing their attitudes and changing the way they look at the poor," said Adams. "Then they go out and tell their friends."
According to Adams, more than 2,700 persons volunteered time and food last year to S.O.M.E., located at First and O streets NW. Some of those volunteers are employed full time and give up their lunch hours to serve meals at S.O.M.E.
"I think people are beginning to respond to the gospel every day of their lives," said Adams. "I think they can see the need is growing and they are responding even though they themselves are hurting financially."