Amid the 4 a.m. darkness, Paul Henderson will be energetic and happy walking into the Columbus Baptist Church kitchen on Thanksgiving Day.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on the tube a few hours later? No need for it.

His revelry will focus on marching straight into residents’ hearts with free, home-cooked meals — probably 600 to 700 of them — as a simple way of reminding people that God loves them via the church’s Eighth annual Feed the Flock event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

That’s worth celebrating, as he sees it.

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“Just to know that we can put a smile on someone’s face — and some of these people are shut-ins — that’s just awesome,” said Henderson, who coordinates the meal with another volunteer, Wilma Compton, and a team of about 40 people.

Columbus Baptist and First Christian both will offer free meals on the holiday, serving nearly 1,500 people — almost the population of Hope.

Diners who partake might have hit hard times, but the meal sites and deliveries are for anyone who needs a place to go, or wants the fellowship and company of others on a day when it can be tough to be alone.

Also, with a team of volunteer drivers, including some from local FedEx employees, meals can be shared all over Bartholomew County. To keep leftovers from going to waste, Columbus Baptist Pastor Charles Kennedy has been known to deliver to liquor stores and just about anywhere else he thinks someone might appreciate a good meal, kind thought, and a prayer to boot.

“I’m astounded at the number of people, especially older folks, who have no one to spend Thanksgiving with,” Kennedy said.

He always asks diners if he can pray a grace-oriented blessing over the meals. And, many times, they will then add other prayer requests — sick family members, wayward children, you name it.

The first couple to register for a meal recently was a woman with leukemia, with a husband battling his own cancer.

“It’s a real blessing to be able to help people in a small way like that,” Kennedy said.

Both Columbus Baptist and First Christian organizers say they’re preparing for a higher number of diners this year since Columbus’ financially strapped Eastside Community Center closed last month. Eastside staff and volunteers have fed a few hundred people or more each year the Saturday before Thanksgiving with a turkey-and-trimmings meal.

First Christian fed 737 people last year, including 220 deliveries, according to Diane Doup. She works with the local Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center, which partners with the church along with FedEx and NTN Driveshaft. The year before, partners fed 786.

“We would like to see those people (from Eastside) come and join us,” Doup said.

Joyce Thayer-Sword, who takes over as First Christian’s meal coordinator this year while working alongside kitchen coordinator Julie Ziegler, already is focusing as much on a sweet spirit as sweet potatoes.

“In today’s technological society, we sometimes can forget that simple eye contact with others is still important to people,” Thayer-Sword said.

At Columbus Baptist, there is no actual budget for the meal. Church members simply began donating boxed food months ahead of time. At First Christian, the expense this year is shared between the church and NTN.

“Our servers certainly understand that we’re doing more than serving a meal,” Thayer-Sword said. “It’s about conversation and camaraderie and building relationships.”

Free feasting for Thanksgiving
  • Columbus Baptist Church, 4821 U.S. 31, serving from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday. For meal deliveries: 812-350-6316 or 812-371-1400.
  • First Christian Church, 531 Ffith St. in Columbus, serving from 12:30 to 2 p.m. For meal deliveries: 812-379-1630.
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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.