This is more or less how St. Stephen’s started serving Thanksgiving Dinner, the origins of the tradition.
I am a “cradle Episcopalian” and have belonged to many parishes in my life. I am originally from Tampa and Dade City Florida. In the mid 1970’s, I belonged to the Episcopal House of Prayer (now St. James House of Prayer) in Tampa. At that time, the parish was sustained by many retired people, mostly widows, as well as a smattering of college students, including myself.
I realized that most of the parish spent Thanksgiving alone, and if someone didn’t have a family invitation, it was a lonely holiday. So I suggested to the rector, Alton Chapman, that the church should have dinner in the parish hall after the Thanksgiving Day service. Al and his wife Betsy had family in the area, so of course, they pushed back, but being the stubborn “Florida Cracker” that I am, I refused to take “no” for an answer. The first year we had about 12 people, and by the time I moved to Miami, a few years later, the event had grown to include most of the parish, around 35 people.
I moved to Miami in September of 1978 and joined St. Stephens. The first year, I was too new to the parish to make any suggestions, but after a year I realized we had a number of retirees and single people at St. Stephens as well. So in 1980, I proposed a dinner at the church. The rector at the time, Alan Hingston, was not encouraging, but I found allies in Jim and Florence Gray (parents of Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves), and we proceeded, having a very small gathering in the church library. My parents came down from Dade City, Jim and Florence came, as well as Art & Laura Bate. The Bates had been hosting my parents on their visits to Miami since my first Christmas in 1978, and they enjoyed each others company.
The following year, the Parish Council decided to open the event up to “the community.” We really didn’t know who would show up. It was suggested I contact Elizabeth Virrick, founder of Coconut Grove Cares, a long time member of the parish, to help publicize the event. We made flyers, posting them around the village center area. A number of folks got involved, many of whom I can’t remember their names now. We had a group of around 10 parishioners who decided to participate, and help prepare food.
I had a friend who had worked in and owned restaurants, Kay Jackson. She had been associated with the CocoPlum cafe in the grove, as well as The Plum on Lincoln Road (long closed). She suggested that I roast the turkeys in paper bags, and gave me information about how to do so. That information is in this link: Edward George Garren~Favorite Recipes.
Going forward on faith, and the promise that the church would pay for whatever food I had to purchase, we cooked 4 or 5 turkeys in the parish hall kitchen, some large side dishes, and other “fixins.” I was up at 4 AM to put the birds in the oven, and cooked all morning, with just enough time to dash into the church for Eucharist, then return to cooking.
Bernice Johnson did a great job of making the tables lovely. We arranged the tables in a large “U” and set the place settings casually. She had brought some large bottles of wine and placed them around the tables.
The doors opened, and a large section of humanity entered. The guests included most of the homeless of the Grove. One of them spotted the wine bottles and as he was making a “bee line” for one of them, with a look of utter joy on his face, Bernice, snatched it (and the others) off the tables and took them back into the inner sanctum of the kitchen. That was the first thing we learned, alcohol & homeless folks are not a good mix.
After offering prayers of thanks, by clergy, parishioners and guests, we all sat down to enjoy dinner. Thats when the magic happened. I had been very emphatic that the event NOT be a charity dinner, where we served the homeless, but rather a community event where we all shared the meal together. So our guests and church members, visitors, friends, and folks we didn’t know were all scattered around the tables. Folks actually made conversations with folks they didn’t know. One of the young men took out his guitar and started playing. He was good, and we all enjoyed his impromptu concert for much of the meal. We basically just let the event take on it’s own life, which created a genuinely enjoyable event. We lingered long after the food was consumed, the fellowship was that enjoyable.
Once the word got out in the parish that we had a good time, lots of folks who didn’t particularly enjoy cooking started attending. The event grew larger, but always remained very warm and friendly, with significant participation and attendance by the parish. The last year I organized the event, we had around 10 turkeys.
The only glitch was the first large year. I took the receipts to the treasurer for the food and turkeys I had purchased. He was one of the businessmen of the parish, who probably had not felt favorably about the event. I had been instructed by the Gray’s to get my re-embursement from him. He looked at me sarcastically, and told me to take the bill to them. I called up Florence (who was the bishops secretary at the time) and within a couple of days, I got a check. That incident was the only real pushback I got.
The last year I was in Miami, my God-Daughter, Ruthenia Nicole Glenn (age 7 at the time) came to live with me. We were fixtures at St. Stephens, and the church members embraced her as warmly as they had embraced me. This photo was taken at the wedding of Mike Reeves and Mary Gray-Reeves. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
As the coincidence of God would have it, she had extended family who were quite prominent in Miami, including Jesse Tanner, widow of Rev. Tanner. He was pastor of a local church, and they also had a funeral home in Coconut Grove. Jesse's older sister, Naomi (and husband Baljean) Smith taught at Miami Northwestern High School for decades. Younger sister Verna Edington was the first African American teacher at Miami Beach High School, teaching Biology for decades. The Lewis, Tanner, Smith and Edington family were incredibly warm and loving to me. It turned out that Nikki's paternal grandfather was brother to the mother of the three Lewis women, Naomi, Jesse and Verna. Their mother was a Glenn, which is a large family (11 siblings) from northern Florida. A photo of them, about 10 years old, is below.
The Thanksgiving dinner is an example of how the power of community, is so important. We Christians call this, "The Body of Christ."
"Nikki" Glenn and me, 1982
In 1983, I moved to Los Angeles, but the event has lived on without me, which is the ultimate complement anyone can receive for an having started something. Several years later, I popped in one year and Guy Bailey stopped the serving long enough to announce that I was present, and had been the one to get the whole thing started. That also meant a lot to me.
I’m glad that I left a mark on St. Stephen’s and Coconut Grove. St. Stephen's is a wonderful community. Photos of the current Thanksgiving Dinners are here.
Yours in Christ, Edward George Garren
Back Row: Jesse Tanner, Baljean & Naomi Smith, Wanda Tanner Kimbrough
Front Row: Jeremy Gay (grandson of) & Verna Edington
"Faith is not believing that certain claims or statements about God are true. Genuine faith presumes a relationship with God...and a way of seeing the world as life-giving and nourishing rather than as hostile and threatening.”
Brother David Vryhof, Society of St. John the Evangelist