More than a dinner

Sun, 10/25/2015 - 7:45pm
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Roll Call began in October of 1900 when the congregation of the First Baptist Church was only newly moved from the old Civic Center, in the middle of the island, to the flourishing center of commerce grown around the Old Harbor.

Their church on Chapel Street originally had been built as an ultimate outreach, a tabernacle for summer visitors of all evangelical denominations. When the congregation added a winter chapel addition and moved they found themselves with woefully inadequate heat. It was a new century and there was a new pastor, Dr. Horace Roberts, who introduced Roll Call as a fundraiser. It was a literal call of the roll of the membership of the church during a service which was followed by a “supper in the galleries and a social reunion,” the day culminating with special music by a choir of children.

The first Roll Call solicitation letter penned by Dr. Roberts cites an outstanding debt of $728.15. The year following he reported it had been reduced to $274.62 and they needed only raise as much as they had the previous year to retire it.

One older church member still recalls Roll Call on Chapel Street, a girl's memory of the women who had been cooking all day taking turns coming to services, their faces red from the heat of the kitchen. I grew up hearing these stories, all clouded by the devastation felt when the building was lost to fire in 1944, dreams of solemn high school graduations and candlelight weddings collapsing with the tower.

The congregation moved, again, the service was incorporated into Sunday worship and the dinner moved to the following Tuesday. The late Rick Lanz, another pastor writing another Roll Call letter decades later, noted that “together they have become a unique expression of our church's ministry as we mark the change in the season.”

The season is changing and another Roll Call and Roll Call Dinner are behind us. Last night, over 500 dinners were served out of the Harbor Church kitchen. Twenty-four turkeys were cooked in kitchens all over the island, bags of potatoes, peeled on Monday, were hauled to the hotel kitchen we have had the good fortune to use for so many years. Stacks of butternut squash were chopped, cooked and mashed, gallons of reportedly very good gravy made, cole slaw assembled. The familiar aroma of a traditional Thanksgiving met anyone coming in the door.

The number of pies is never a certainty, some people forget they said they would make one while others arrive with three instead of the promised one; there were upwards of sixty by the Pie Room estimate. At the end, three pieces — not pies, pieces — lingered in the kitchen, likely devoured by the last of the well-deserving clean-up crew.

It is the extraordinary generosity of so many without as well as within our congregation that makes this event a success, that and the well-honed organizational skills of the woman who pulls it all together. This year the line of people waiting to be seated seemed endless prompting the perennial oh-my-God-there-are-so-many-left-do-we-have-enough-fill-in-the-blank worries.

Then there were the coffee pots . . . a few summers ago I went to the church back cellar in search of something immediately forgotten when I pulled back the plastic sheeting draped over shelving and found dead urns.“Ghosts of Coffee Pots Past” turned into a two-part column which could easily have been three. A woman long married to a pastor stopped by to tell me the commentary set off little bells, one “ding” followed by another “ding” of recollection of the nonsensical — and universal — side of church life.

This year it was the Coffee Pot Shuffle. Many of the urns, carefully tested the day before, wouldn't work when plugged into a given outlet and suddenly tables were moved, traffic lanes shifted, test runs made and a clarion call for replacement of the urns, all of them, issued.

Still, it is a sort of communion, this tradition that predates even the oldest of us. One of our “outside” volunteers remarked how “joyous” it was when people work together. Another, who was away for years raising a family on the mainland, was still smiling as things wound down, offering a heartfelt “this was fun!”

After everyone was fed, the rarely used linens in a pile in the kitchen, the tables struck down, the chairs returned to their racks, as the kitchen wrapped up, a man held a phone showing a video of the barge drifting just offshore earlier in the day, taken from his present work site. When his wife asked him whose phone he had he smiled before confessing it was his; he had had help from his new young helper, also working the dinner. It was a sweet moment crossing generations and nationalities, what should be but too often is not.

There were a surprising number of raffle tickets for the exquisite hand-crafted quilt sold; perhaps this last chance was the first opportunity for people so busy throughout the summer. It underscored the Alpha and Omega nature of this time of year.

Dr. Roberts first chose the date to coincide with the formal gathering of the church, which was, as it legally remains, the First Baptist Church (American Baptist we feel obligated to add, not Southern Baptist, and most certainly not Westboro). It was the time of harvest when there were plenty of potatoes and squash to be had, it was the stretch of putting up for the winter, but not so long after the time the tourist trade brought greater business and cash money to farmers and fisherman as well as owners of hotels and related businesses. 

It was a period of transition even in 1900, from the busy summer to the more introspective winter, when “In the providence of God we are permitted to celebrate another anniversary of our Church... ” It was, it is, a time to give thanks.