By Julio Avila
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Huntington Station has hosted Christmas dinners for three decades, but last Friday was the first time 55-year-old William Lorenz had ever been to one.
With a plate of yams, a turkey drumstick, string beans, stuffing and a slice of bread, “this dinner is a Christmas miracle for me,” Lorenz said. “I do the best that I can do, but I don’t eat normally.”
Lorenz has spent the last several months living outdoors in the woods.
“I live in a tent in the woods,” Lorenz said. “That’s what my life has become.”
Lorenz said he previously lived in Department of Social Services housing, but that he would prefer to remain outdoors.
“DSS put me in a crack house, an active crack house for housing, so I ran to the woods and put a tent up,” said Lorenz, who admits to abusing alcohol and drugs in the past. ”I don’t want to go to a house where people are doing drugs.”
Now in its 30th year, a great amount of preparation goes into making the dinner possible through volunteers, donations and parish support, said Deacon Richard Thyden, who has led the effort every year. Thyden said volunteers are up as early as 6 a.m. on Christmas Day to prepare dozens of turkeys and hams, 40 pounds each of string beans, yams and potatoes.
With all this food, “There are no shortages,” Thyden said. “They cook at home, which makes our lives easier.”
Volunteers also wrap toys for children who attended the dinner.
Thyden said volunteers include people outside the congregation and other religions, with the goal of tending to those who may have no one or no where to go.
“It’s not a homeless situation; it’s more of a lonely situation.” Thyden said. “We try to buck up their spirits on this day and share the holiday with them.”
The Christmas joy and spirit makes itself known. People shared a good time, with conversation and laughter going back and forth as children smiled and unwrapped gifts.
Helping others and giving back are the reasons why church member Gloria Fagan, 58, of Greenlawn, has volunteered for the past five years.
“This is just a day for people to realize that not everybody is fortunate in this world. And that you get so much more inside when you give back, even just a little bit,” Fagan said.
Fagan plays an active role within the church. Aside from volunteering, she also helps with the church’s preschool, helping parents in need of a preschool for their children. Fagan added there were 75 toys gift-wrapped for children at the dinner.
“No child at Christmas should feel that Santa forgot them,” Fagan said. “For a child to feel that they were left out is heartbreaking.”
This lesson of sharing and giving back is what prompted Fagan to bring her three children – ages 21, 24 and 26 – who at first were reluctant, but they have volunteered every year since.
“For the people that come here, there is hope and there is people that want you here,” Fagan said. “When people walk through the door here, they know that they feel wanted here. They're not a burden. They’re welcome here.”
John Nolan, 65 and a 40-year Huntington Station resident, first heard about Gloria Dei’s Christmas dinner about 20 years ago in a Pennysaver ad. He has come ever since with his wife, Christine.
Recalling the first time he attended, he said, “It was very good. The food was good. Very crowded. People were nice,” Nolan said. “That’s why we come back. It’s better than staying home by yourself.”
Nolan said the dinner is like a “reunion.”
This was 67-year-old Brendan Cussen’s fifth year at the Gloria Dei dinner. Cussen, of Kings Park, is a U.S. Navy veteran who is no stranger to spending Christmas away from home.
“It was always pretty decent,” Cussen said of his Christmas dinners in the Navy. “I had some really good shipmates.”
After his first Gloria Dei dinner five years ago, he said has not hesitated to drive back every year and will continue to “if i’m still around... unless some gal invites me to her place, you know,” he said, with a laugh.
Cussen said he was looking forward to seeing his family, including his 3-month-old nephew, later that day. “This will be the first time I’ll be laying eyes on him,” Cussen said.
Attendees lauded the generosity of the church and volunteers, and said they shared a sense of holiday cheer, spirit and hope. Hope was especially important to Lorenz. He is now studying to apply for a class A commercial driver’s license to operate tractor trailers get a job that will help take him out of the woods.
“I’m thankful to God and the people who help me,” Lorenz said.