Sharing Their Blessing

By Brad McEwen

For far too many Albany area citizens Christmas will not be a happy time filled with warmth, love and laughter. There will be no traditional meal and there will be no presents under the tree. The holiday will once again pass without much cheer.

But parishioners at Albany’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church are working hard to change that.

In just a few weeks, the church family will welcome more than 1,000 of their neighbors to join them in a special holiday celebration aimed at sharing the spirit of Christmas, and more importantly the love of Christ.

“Part of our philosophy is we have a responsibility to Albany, and beyond Albany, that we just can’t do church between the walls,” long-time Mt. Zion Pastor Daniel Simmons told me recently. “We have a responsibility to the community. And one of the ways that we do that is through this Christmas outreach. It gives us the chance to show people the love of Jesus and to show them that the church cares about them.”

Indeed, the Mt. Zion family has been showing that love for more than 15 years, following the suggestion of a member who wanted the church to increase its outreach in the community.

“This started back in 2001,” explained Mt. Zion member and AB&T’s own Alfredia Hampton. “Thelma Jackson went to Pastor Simmons and asked him about doing this, something for the community, for needy families. And that’s how it started.

“We served, that year, a full course lunch—turkey, dressing, all the trimmings, along with a gift bag for all the seniors. We took out dinners, along with the gift bags, to the food bank for the sick and shut-in that could not attend that normally got meals from the soup kitchen on Thursdays. So we started out with 300.”

Alfredia, who at that time was volunteering to help her dear friend Thelma, said that after that first year it didn’t take long for the outreach to become an important annual event.

“Well, it just exploded,” she said. “In fact, we hadn’t prepared enough. It was the very first year so we really didn’t know how to gauge it. Over the years it just grew and grew. Last year we did lunch and gift bags for 1,200 people.”

With the outreach becoming essentially a two-fold project where the church not only provides the meal, but also presents those Christmas gift bags to children, adults and senior citizens, it has grown into one of the church’s most important programs, requiring the efforts of the entire church family.

“It’s the whole church,” said Alfredia, who has served as the event’s chairperson for the past several years. “It’s so many. There’s various committees that help, like a decorating committee, and people that do inventory and stuff and volunteers that help prepare the bags. There’s so many I couldn’t even list them all. It’s the whole church. I’m just the chairman for it. And this year, since I’m working, Lois Love is chairing with me this year. A lot of people make sacrifices to help.”

Of course, as chair of such a large undertaking, Alfredia has a lot of responsibility and much of that responsibility extends well beyond Christmas. In fact, I learned of her involvement in the outreach months ago when a co-worker happened to mention that she needed to let Alfredia know about a sale she had seen on children’s toys.

When I asked why that was important, she explained that Alfredia essentially shops year round, looking for deals so that the church and its members (which cover the entire cost of the Christmas outreach) can spread their dollars and therefore reach more people in need.

“It’s an all-year process,” Alfredia told me when we sat down to discuss why this program is so important to her. “Wherever I go I’m looking. I’m shopping to see what we can purchase. The members donate the purchased items for the gift bag. We put out a list for what we need.

“I’ll get started on next year the day after Christmas. I can get $30, $40 toys for $4 and $5 dollars, because it saves the church money. So I just buy. We have a storage room.”

Alfredia explained that the storage facility will eventually fill up with enough items to ensure that the church is able to provide a memorable Christmas to hundreds of area residents while also giving them things that are vitally important.

For adults and seniors, Alfredia said the gift bags contain essential items, while children of all ages, including infants, get things that are educational and fun.

“See we do bags for men, women, infants, boys and girls, so it’s different things,” she said. “But every bag will have toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, and especially for grown-ups, socks, deodorant. We give the men shaving cream, after shave lotion and shampoo too. And conditioner. We also try to put in a book or Bible, even for the little kids. Whatever members donate, we put in the bag. But the staples are there, all the toiletries.

“And we want to make sure that the children get at least one, good, major, big toy, along with smaller toys. The boys love the remote control cars, trucks, trains. And we put socks in there, books, coloring crayons, a coloring book, puzzles, games; we put all that in there.

“And we do gloves, socks, hats, even for the infants, the babies. We do that for them. And we give them smaller toys for infants. Whatever we get we put in there.”

For Alfredia, providing those gift bags is not only important for helping people have a merry Christmas, it’s also something that she believes is part of being a Christian.

“When God blesses you, you’re supposed to pass that blessing along,” she said matter-of-factly. “You don’t keep it.

“There’s always going to be people less fortunate than you. God has blessed us, me, and Mt. Zion and we should be a blessing to somebody else. We should be a blessing to someone else always.

“People ask what they call their purpose. I feel like I know mine. I am a servant. I love helping people. I don’t have to know you, but if I can help you, I will.”

In fact, that need to help is what first motivated Alfredia to assist her friend Thelma. But her involvement means even more today.

“Like I said, I was in it from the beginning with my girlfriend and she died in August,” Alfredia told me. “I helped her with this and then she got sick; she had a stroke in 2007 and I helped the next person. And then low and behold (the next person) moved.

“Her name was Sue, and then it was me. And I’ve been doing it ever since. But this is a dream of Thelma’s. It’s her baby.”

While the Christmas outreach might be Thelma’s baby there’s no doubting that Alfredia has put a stamp on it thanks to her passion, energy and leadership.

“One of the philosophies that we have at Mt. Zion we borrowed from John Maxwell: ’Everything rises and falls on leadership,’” said Pastor Simmons. “So Alfredia’s role as the leader cannot be overstated. There are people involved, and I mean a lot of people, who work hard—even people who are not members of the church will get involved and work hard, and that’s because Alfredia is able to corral all of these different individuals and get them to commit.”

For Simmons, the fact that Alfredia, and the others before her have helped shepherd the outreach program along, has allowed it to become a massive community event that stands as one of the most important things the church does to help area citizens.

“I was excited when Thelma first came up with the idea,” he said. “At that point we were transitioning. We were not doing as much outreach as we felt like we should have been doing. So I did some teaching and sermons on the necessity of it and then people started coming forward saying, ‘Hey, I would love to do this.'

“And that’s what Thelma did. And it started very small and each year it grew and grew and grew. And then Thelma started grooming Alfredia and when she couldn’t do it, she took over. But we knew we had a responsibility that we were not fulfilling and so we had to step up to the plate.

“You know, when much is given, much is required. And the Lord has given us a lot.”

That notion of giving goes to the heart of all aspects of the Christmas outreach, as Alfredia and Pastor Simmons both praised the efforts of everyone who donates items, the many volunteers who organize the gift bags, and the ones that provide, prepare and serve the holiday meal—itself a awesome undertaking.

“They work all year long, but during that week they really go to work,” said Pastor Simmons. “They may be over there at the other facility putting stuff together (for the gift bags) until one or two in the morning.”

“And nobody gets paid a dime. And the cooks—we want that meal to be fresh—son they will actually start on Tuesday and Alfredia is there motivating and coordinating all that to make it happen.”

True to her nature, Alfredia deflects any credit when it comes to discussing the outreach, pointing out that it’s the church deacons and volunteers who prepare the gift bags and the food and work throughout the week making sure that the meal is both ready for the crowds and delicious to eat.

“They cook all night,” she said. “They get the turkeys, thaw them out and then prepare them, and it’s all night. When you’re cooking that much food and dressing, it takes time. And the food is actually, well it’s tasty.”

That yummy meal, which will be served at the church on the third Thursday of December from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., typically consists of turkey, dressing, green beans, creamed corn, collards or turnip greens, corn bread, and rolls, as well as desserts.

“It’s a full dinner,” Pastor Simmons said. “And because we have people go out and buy and then help cook it, we may have fried turkey and then baked turkey and then ham. It’s a feast.”

In addition to that day’s feast Alfredia said many of the folks that come to the meal also get a turkey to take home thanks to the generosity of certain private donors.

“Several years ago we had one person—she was from Atlanta—and she said she had some turkeys for us, not to cook, but to give to the people that came,” Alfredia said. “And she said 200. And low and behold it was 200 CASES of turkeys!

“Two hundred cases, in a refrigerated truck. So we gave turkeys away there and we also took turkeys to the surrounding counties that were members of Mt. Zion and gave them all away until they were gone. And not for the members, they were for the people in the community.”

Along with providing extra turkeys to surrounding counties, Alfredia said the church also makes sure they not only provide meals to the sick and shut-in that always get soup kitchen food delivered, anything that’s left over gets donated in the community.

“If people come they’re going to get served,” she said. “It’s really for the needy people in the community, but whoever walks through that door, you serve them. There will always be more than enough food.

“And the food that’s left over we donate to other people. Usually what I do is I take food to the nursing home and we take it to the mission on Monroe (Albany Rescue Mission).”

Although Alfredia loves that the church is able to provide food and gifts to those in need who can’t make it the church for the feast, she said those that are able to come to the meal will really get a chance to enjoy themselves and feel connected to the church community that loves them.

“We sing Christmas carols and then Pastor Simmons gives a mini-sermon and then we go into serving,” she said. “We do the meal first. Then we give out the gift bags. We also give out a bunch of bicycles provided by Dr. Charles King Sr. who collects all year to provide bikes to some of the children.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s very good. We come together, fellowship and we just enjoy it.”

While taking part in the outreach is certainly a lot of fun, both Pastor Simmons and Alfredia emphasized the importance of how participating in the Christmas event mirrors the spirit and actions of Christ.

“It makes you feel good to know that you helped someone,” Alfredia explained. “When I was not working I would go on Thursday morning to help out at the soup kitchen and I was just surprised how many people they served. And then how thankful they were to get just a soup, sandwich and dessert.

“You just don’t realize how many people just don’t have. A lot of times you think you don’t have, but there’s somebody that has less. We have a lot to be thankful for. We are blessed and we have to pass that blessing on.”

In a community where people still lack basic necessities and still struggle to get by, it truly warms my heart to know that this area of Southwest Georgia is also filled with loving and giving people like Pastor Simmons, Alfredia and the many other volunteers involved in Mt. Zion’s Christmas outreach, who are passing on blessings each and every day and working to strengthen this community throughout the year. For that we are all blessed.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen