by Rev. Marc O’Neal
The Camden UMC women’s group (the Jackie Berry Circle) regularly prepares a community meal on the third Wednesday of each month. It is part fundraiser, part community outreach, where the entire community is invited into the fellowship hall to break bread with one another.
The meal for January was Chicken Pan Pie, which for $7 included not only the chicken, but also yams, green beans, dessert and tea. The Sunday before the meal, one of the congregants, Suzanne Berry, texted the church’s pastor, Marc O’Neal, about inviting her son and his family as well as another family in the church to come eat, with the intent that she would pay for it. What made this request stand out, and the stated reason for her request, was that both families were Coast Guard families. This is not unusual because Camden sits about six miles from Elizabeth City (home of Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, the largest and busiest Coast Guard air station in the US) and so any number of members/ visitors in the congregation are active-duty or retired “coasties,” with many remaining on base in a civilian capacity after their enlisted days are over.
Obviously that matters, because the Coast Guard and their employees are not being paid during the current government shutdown. A large segment of the greater community, not just in the church family, are facing days without income and having to figure out how to make ends meet. One of the church leaders and a retired Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Butch Flythe said, “When you are a young enlisted man with family, you mostly live paycheck to paycheck. There is rarely anything left over for savings. Not being paid is thrusting young patriotic people into what is basically homelessness. Some have already received eviction notices and delinquent loan letters. And unfortunately, some elderly retired Coast Guard members and civilian employees are in the same boat.”
From this reality sprang the idea: with so many in the community affected by the shutdown, why not reach out to that community specifically (the Coast Guard) and offer the meal for free for any federal employee affected by the shutdown?
Pastor Marc contacted the leaders of the women’s group, and they collectively decided to move forward with it. Women’s group co-president, Karen Seigh, remarked, “This is being the hands and feet of Christ.” A simple announcement was made on the church’s Facebook page, and before long, the post had been shared 241 times.
The ladies made extra, anticipating a larger crowd than normal. That night, some 26 families came to take advantage of the meal and fellowship. Enlisted man Paul Battig said he was “blown away” by the support given by those in our area. The hope for the evening was that both a basic need could be met, and, for an hour or so, some of the anxiety of dealing with the shutdown could be alleviated. One of the group’s members and church leader, Joyce Spruill said, “It lifts your spirits to do for others, and you could see the appreciation on their faces. Even though it was a long day for those who cooked and served the meal, it was well worth the effort to be able to help others in our community and was a real blessing to all of us.”
The Men’s Group, who have a spaghetti dinner the first Wednesday of each month, will also be offering their meal free to all Coast Guard and furloughed civilians on Feb 6.