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Hilltop Church of Christ celebrates Thanksgiving early with free meal

on November 20, 2013

When Wilma Allison arrived at Hilltop Church of Christ’s annual early Thanksgiving dinner last year, all of the food was already gone. She didn’t make the same mistake this year. Allison showed up early on Saturday, and she was rewarded with a heaping plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.

Allison was smart to come early: As she sat down to eat, the line outside was quickly growing. Saturday was the ninth annual free dinner hosted at Hilltop Church, an event that also includes a turkey and ham giveaway, and free clothes and groceries. The event is not need-based; everyone is welcome.

At the front of the food line, Diana Simpson-Estebez lost her grip on the salad bowl as she leaned over to inspect the dessert table. She used a few paper napkins to clean it up, and quickly caught up with her family at a table outside. It was her first time coming to the dinner, even though she lives just a few blocks away from the church. She had learned about the event from her niece, and she was excited to check out the clothes and grocery giveaways. “Times are tough, you know.”

Hilltop Church spokesman Nathan Rapp said last year’s event, which attracted about 2,700 people, cost more than $60,000 to organize. This year, he estimated that even more people came to eat. The size and popularity of the event have increased over the years, and so have donations. Other churches assisted with food and clothing donations, and their congregations also helped organize the event.

“Make no mistake about it: This is not only a city of Richmond event,” Rapp said. Congregations from Berkeley to San Jose helped to put on this year’s dinner. Non-church-goers have pitched in, too. “My phone has been going off all week with people who aren’t affiliated with any church. They’ve heard of the work we’ve been doing and they want to help.”

Outside the big white tent, James Lyons, a member of Hilltop Church, was making sure the line flowed smoothly. “Each year it gets a little bit larger, and we do things to mitigate tension and avoid conflict.” There had been no problems so far, he was quick to add.

Several Richmond police officers volunteered to help with the event this year. A handful of uniformed police officers ushered people along outside, while plain-clothes officers helped disabled people find seats and delivered food.

Lyons pointed to the yellow tape that had been put down on the asphalt to show people where to line up. “This is the first year we’ve put yellow tape on the ground,” he said. But an hour after the event started, the line of people waiting for a meal already extended past the taped-off area.

Rapp said part of the reason Hilltop Church of Christ holds the free dinner almost two weeks before Thanksgiving is so it doesn’t overlap with other events. The organizers also understand that people are busy around the holidays. They wanted to choose a time when people would be able to sit down and enjoy a meal, without feeling rushed because of all the other things that need to be done around Thanksgiving.

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