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Giving thanks and giving food

Members of many faiths will gather at the community Thanksgiving service Wednesday to collect food and money for the poor.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- In a country where supermarket shelves overflow, restaurants are numerous and Thanksgiving tables groan under bountiful feasts, there is plenty of hunger, advocates for the poor say.

So in what has become a tradition amid the flurry of holiday preparations, representatives from many of the city's faith communities will pause Wednesday to give thanks and share their blessings.

"As a community, we know that we need to provide for those who are not as fortunate as we are," said Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel, gathering place for this year's community interfaith Thanksgiving service.

This is the event's 18th year and as is customary, the food and financial donations collected during the service will go to local organizations that serve the poor.

The guest speaker will be Bill Heller, dean of the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.

"I want to focus on the value of people and how we can be thankful and appreciate the different kinds of people we have," Heller said in a preview of his talk.

"Our community is very unique because we have a lot of people who do care about other people. The heart of any community is the people."

One example is the volunteer-driven Daystar Life Center, a small downtown agency that assists about 20,000 people each year. Daystar will benefit from offerings collected at this year's interfaith service.

The poor are particularly vulnerable at this time of year, said Daystar's director, Sister Rosemarie Infinito.

"At this time of year, we give out turkey dinners and Christmas gifts," she said, adding that her agency typically gives away about 11,000 bags of food annually.

Daystar also helps the needy with clothing, household items and money for utilities, rent and prescriptions.

Its clients are changing, Sister Rosemarie said.

"It used to be more women with children, but we're seeing more men with children. We do see a lot of homeless men and women," she said.

Jane Trocheck Walker, former deputy executive director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, is quite familiar with the poor.

"It's the low-wage earners. It's the single-parent families, fixed-income elderly and disabled, the homeless, the mentally disabled," Ms. Walker said. "It's anybody who is scraping to make ends meet and pay the utilities and rent. And whatever is left over a lot of times isn't very much for food."

It can be difficult to realize that there are hungry people in the United States, she added.

"One of the reasons is that we can always see food. There's no time you can walk into a grocery store and not see food and plenty of it. . . . Accessibility is the issue," Ms. Walker said.

Those who want to help organizations like Daystar should donate nutritious staples, said Sister Rosemarie, who suggested non-perishables such as spaghetti dinners, macaroni and cheese, rice, cereal, peanut butter and cans of fruit, vegetables and fish.

Sister Rosemarie is particularly grateful for the 30,000 items of food St. Petersburg Catholic High School students collected for the agency.

"Last year they gave us over 14,000 items. I can't tell you what a difference it makes to our families to give them those extra cans of food," she said.

"You always hear about the teenager that has done something wrong, and you don't hear about the teenagers that do so much."

Sister Rosemarie estimates that, supplemented with other donations, the food collected by the St. Petersburg Catholic High School students will last about three months.

"We normally pick up a lot of canned goods at this time of year," she said. "But in the summertime, when most people go back up north, then our donations of food drop off."

Besides Daystar, offerings made during Wednesday's interfaith Thanksgiving service will go to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, Elim Seventh-day Adventist Food Pantry, Operation Attack, Community Outreach Ministry and ASAP.

The service, which will include Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Bahai and American Indian elements, is being sponsored by the St. Petersburg Ministerial Association, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, St. Petersburg Free Clinic, National Conference for Community and Justice, Church Women United and Congregations United for Community Action.

This is the first year that the service will be held in a non-Christian facility.

Luski, who said he looks forward to welcoming the interfaith community to Congregation B'nai Israel's new synagogue, noted that Thanksgiving has its roots in the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

"From what I best understand, the story of the pilgrims of Thanksgiving was based on the biblical celebration of Sukkot, which is the Feast of the Tabernacles, the fall harvest festival. The pilgrims were scripturally based, so as a result, this was a very natural expression of their rejoicing," Luski said.

"It is certainly appropriate that we pause as Americans to give thanks for what we have as individuals and communally," he added.

Wednesday's interfaith Thanksgiving service is symbolic, Ms. Walker said. "So is the food gathering," she said.

"We need to make sure a child can eat in the summer when school is out. That a senior citizen doesn't have to choose between whether to heat or whether to eat during the winter. That a minimum wage earner has the wherewithal to actually have a lunch to eat on their lunch break. Hunger is not seasonal."

If you go

Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, 7:15 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Congregation B'nai Israel, 300 58th St. N. A freewill offering and non-perishable food will be collected for local social service agencies. Checks should be made payable to the St. Petersburg Ministerial Association.

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