A Festival of Praise

How Sligo church members partner together for the community in need.

Bonnie L. Casey was the editorial assistant for the Sligo church staff at the time of the interview.
Tim Garrison is an associate pastor of the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist church, Takoma Park, Maryland.

Sligo Seventh-day Adventist church, in historic Takoma Park, Maryland, sits at the southern tip of Montgomery County, which a recent government study found to be the most affluent congressional district in the United States. Yet within just a few miles of the church, in any direction, are hundreds of individuals and families in need of food, clothing, shelter, and financial assistance. Over the years Sligo's more than three thousand members have built a reputation among the community as partners with local social service agencies in meeting these fundamental human needs.

Each November this commitment to service is reemphasized in a dramatic way. For the past thirteen years Sligo has celebrated the Sabbath before Thanksgiving with a ''Festival of Praise.'' The central event of this festival is a processional offering in which the entire congregation may participate. As part of the service, members carry hundreds of grocery bags full of food to the front of the church, and after the service these food bags are distributed to needy families in the metropolitan Washington, D. C., area.

The last five festivals have been coordinated by Sligo associate pastor Tim Garrison. In this interview he describes how the festival is organized and tells how this tradition encourages congregational participation,

Q How did the Festival of Praise begin, and why has the tradition endured?

A. It began as a brief Thanksgiving service during the study hour. At that time there was no processional offering involved, but there was such a positive response to even this informal service that it soon was moved to the worship hour.

Q. With all the people and details involved, this Festival of Praise must be a real organizational feat. What is the first step in the process?

A. No one in church work will be surprised that the first step is putting together a committee, usually composed of the minister of music, the head deacon, and several volunteers. When the committee first meets I hand out a comprehensive "To Do" list with dates, duties, and names. In that way they all know what are the responsibilities of each. At least once more before the festival we get everyone together and go over the "To Do" list item by item to see that everything is being done.

Q. What are some of the things the committee must tackle well in advance of the festival?

A. We have to order some special food items and find a source for hundreds of paper grocery bags. Besides that, I need to work with a graphic designer for a special bulletin cover, and the minister of music needs time to recruit and rehearse extra musicians. Then we need the names of families who will receive the food. Names that come to us from social service agencies are already screened, but requests from church members, or those that come through our own Community Services center, must be screened by our staff.

Q. Why must they be screened at all? Isri t the request for food a proof of need?

A.  The screening is not at all meant to humiliate the people who request food or make them think we are suspicious of them. We do it to determine the kind and amount of need as well as to help prepare our members for what they might find. Invariably, some church members delivering bags of food will return and report to us that "their furniture was nicer than mine! Why did they get a free bag of food?" But in recent years we have seen many middle-class poor—people who appear to have a lovely home, but who have fallen temporarily into great need because of prolonged illness or unemployment. Part of our task is to inform the members making deliveries that the needs are genuine, even though they may not outwardly appear to be so.

Q. You make a special effort to decorate the sanctuary for the festival. Why do you think this is important?

A. For several years we have hung large banners behind the choir loft and along the outer aisles. These banners carry quotations from Scripture and other appropriate sayings for the season. Many Sligo members will tell you that it just wouldn't be the Festival of Praise without them. One reason is that the interior of our sanctuary is quite plain, not having any stained glass windows, so the colorful banners help to focus our visual attention and heighten the mood of celebration. But more important is the fact that the banners represent the participation and efforts of so many lay members. One group of members designed them, cut them out, and sewed them together, and another group takes them out of storage and irons them every year. These banners are about five feet wide and fifteen feet long, so ironing them is a considerable task! A week before the festival willing members bring their irons to church and we iron the banners on the floor of the sanctuary. (There's another detail I have to remember—long extension cords.)

Q. When people, arrive at church on the morning of the festival, food is already on display up on the platform. Where does this come from.?

A. On the Friday morning before the festival several of the pastors get the van from our Community Services center and go to the local open-air market to pick up fresh produce. We load the van with apples, oranges, bananas, potatoes, carrots, and onions. Then we stop by a local bakery to pick up a few hundred loaves of bread. When we get back to the church, we take a few hours to arrange the produce in large wicker baskets on the platform, adding to the beauty of the display on Sabbath morning.

Q. Do you have a special budget for buying all this food?

A. No, but during the processional offering, people may place money in baskets on either side of the platform marked "Poor Fund. " This money is used throughout the year to meet requests for emergency assistance which come to us through our emergency aid committee. We use a small portion of this poor fund to pay for the fresh food distributed during the Festival of Praise.

Q. Do you give your members any instructions on what kinds of food to bring, or do they just empty their cupboards of whatever they and the kids don't like or don't want?

A. The week before the festival we request foods for, certain families with special needs, such as the numbers of refugees from southeast Asia, who might not appreciate a can of ravioli. We also request that people bring canned or dry goods, especially those that require little preparation, since some families have limited facilities for cooking.

Q.The main event in the Festival of Praise is, of course, the processional offer* Ing, when people bring their food as~well as money to the front. What do you do to make this as orderly as possible?

A. Deacons dismiss the members row by row, but still it takes twenty-five to thirty minutes for the whole procession to take place. During that time a brass choir plays music that helps to make it a more reverential occasion. As the food is brought down, a whole front row of volunteers take it out of the bags and arrange it according to type in a very colorful display.

After the procession we take time for a short homily by the senior pastor and a brief expression of appreciation to the congregation. Someone from the com munity, usually from a social service agency that has provided us with names of needy families, will come and say a few words on behalf of the people who will receive the food. We think this has been very effective in helping the members feel that what they are doing is worthy and appreciated.

Q. What happens to the food after the service?

A. We make a special appeal for at least two hundred volunteers to rebag and deliver the food. This tradition is so well established by now that we have no trouble getting adequate volunteers, who deliver about four hundred bags of food to 125 to 130 households. Each bag contains a card saying, "A special gift to you at this Thanksgiving time from the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist church."

Q. Most Sligo members seem to feel that, next to Christmas, this Is the high point of their church year. Why do you think think so!

A. Most worship services focus on the speaker or on the music, not on the congregation. But during the Festival of Praise the focus is on members of the congregation as they bring their offering to the altar. Few services during our church year offer people such an opportunity to participate actively. 

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Bonnie L. Casey was the editorial assistant for the Sligo church staff at the time of the interview.
Tim Garrison is an associate pastor of the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist church, Takoma Park, Maryland.

October 1984

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