Family Loss Leads to Thanksgiving Ministry



By Leslie Uriss Spehar

Family traditions are the foundation on which holiday celebrations are built. When those traditions change, for whatever reason, how we experience the holiday does as well. When Jeanne Cosgrove of Coraopolis UMC lost her mother and sister in 2011, the idea of celebrating anything seemed a daunting task.

Cosgrove tried her best to create a festive atmosphere at Thanksgiving that year for her husband and two children, but when the meal was done and the dishes washed and put away, the holiday just didn’t feel right. The next year, she decided to make some changes that led to a new Thanksgiving ministry for her church.

In 2012, Cosgrove and her family volunteered to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the needy at a church in Dormont, PA. The experience was so fulfilling for them that they wanted to start a similar ministry at Coraopolis UMC. After receiving the green light from her pastor, Cosgrove began to put the wheels in motion over the course of the next year and in 2013, the church hosted its first Thanksgiving meal for the community in many years, with 25 volunteers on hand to help.

“I was hoping we would serve 25 to 50 people, we ended up serving approximately 200,” said Cosgrove. “It was so overwhelming!”

Along with the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and other traditional fare, the church and volunteers also provided fellowship and companionship to everyone who came through the doors. Cosgrove found this to be particularly gratifying.

"We had a gentleman come who told us that his family would not let him be with them for the holiday,” she said. “He came in and had several heaping platefuls of food. I am not sure if he had a home to go back to after he left, but I do know that for a period of time, he was warm and dry and had some good food to fill him and some people who talked with him and cared for him. I hope we touched him that day, and I know he touched me.”

Though many consider this type of community meal to appeal mainly to those who are economically challenged, the event also served those who were emotionally needy.

"There was the man whose son was murdered in Texas 6 years ago,” said Cosgrove. “Understandably, holidays are very hard for him. His wife was working that day and he had no one to be with. He heard about our dinner and decided to come. I hope that the food and fellowship helped him get through a tough day.”

To further expand their outreach, the group delivered meals to local first responders who couldn’t be home with their families that day including police departments, Valley Ambulance, the 911th Air Wing, and the National Guard.

"We received several thank you notes from them, so we know how much they appreciated our thinking about them,” said Cosgrove. “It was just a small way to say thank you to them for their service.”

With the help of a grant from the WPAUMC Poverty Team, the church will broaden their outreach efforts even more this year by providing transportation to the dinner for residents of Mooncrest, a 395-unit housing complex operated by the Felician Sisters in Moon Township, PA . They plan to distribute flyers throughout the complex and will be offering two pick-up times on Thanksgiving Day.

“We’re picking up one group at 12:30, and then we’ll take them back after their meal and pick up another group at 2:30,” Cosgrove said.

If the response from the residents is overwhelming, Cosgrove plans to adopt a fishes and loaves philosophy that worked for them last year when they ran out of potatoes a couple hours before the end of the day. Just as her panic was reaching full blown status, a volunteer walked through the door with a tray full of mashed potatoes unused after another church had finished its community meal that day.

For the Cosgrove family, the new holiday tradition has been a rewarding and bonding experience. “One of my favorite parts of last year was at the end of the night,” said Cosgrove. “My son came to me and said, ‘Good job, Mom. That was great.’”

Read how other United Methodist congregations will welcome Thanksgiving guests.