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Two Willmar churches offering free Thanksgiving meals to community

The Rev. Steve Bielenberg, left, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Willmar, and his wife Corinne serve the annual Thanksgiving dinner in 2009. Redeemer will serve again this year on Thanksgiving Day, and Mahanaim Asemblea de Dios Espana is serving Saturday. (Tribune file photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- Two Willmar churches are offering free community meals to help people who can't put a Thanksgiving dinner on the table or who would otherwise be alone on the holiday.

The Mahanaim Asemblea de Dios Espana will serve a meal from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday at Kennedy Elementary School.

Redeemer Lutheran Church will offer a Thanksgiving dinner with homemade pie from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the church on Thanksgiving Day. It's the sixth year the church has provided the meal, said the Rev. Steve Bielenberg.

Both churches will set out a traditional meal of turkey, potatoes and gravy, dressing, vegetables and dessert. Both are doing it to fill a need they see in the community.

"We're really hoping for a good turnout," said Manuel Garcia, a leader of Mahanaim. "It's a free dinner for the community so they can get to know us a little bit better.

"This is the first time we've done it," he said.

Mahanaim recently lost its church building and currently meets in the First Covenant Church building. Garcia said the meal would help "show people that we are still around." The church has nearly 100 people at Sunday services and has been growing, even though it is currently without a pastor, he said.

Garcia said volunteers from the church will provide a turkey dinner and will also have prize drawings and games for children.

The meal is for anyone in the area, he said, and he hopes to see people from all parts of the community come to eat. They are ready to feed as many as 500 people, he said.

Garcia said he hopes to continue serving people through a new ministry he and his wife Loida Espinoza have started. AVF Ministries stands for Alcanzando la Victoria por Fe (Reaching Victory by Faith). "Free meals, that's what our new ministry is all about," he said.

Bielenberg said his church typically feeds 225 to 250 people each Thanksgiving. People from the church and the community sign up to bake homemade pies and work in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

"It's the one thing we don't have to ask for volunteers for," he said. Sometimes, whole families sign up to work.

"I know that there's a need out there," Bielenberg said. One year, he saw a man come in, fill his plate and finish it in about a minute, he said. It was clear the man hadn't had a full meal in a while.

Some people come because their family isn't celebrating until the weekend, and they don't want to be alone, he said. One year, a family came to the church for dinner because their kitchen was being remodeled.

There's no charge for the meal, and there's no freewill offering, Bielenberg said. Donations help cover the cost and people from the church pitch in so "it's not a huge amount of work for any one person."

Bielenberg said the church plans to keep offering the meal.

"As long as there's a need, we'd like to keep on doing it," he said. "It's a way to reach out to the community and help out on a day that might be a quiet day."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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