Mary and Steve Rhoades have spent the last 23 years serving Thanksgiving meals to others at the United Methodist Church in Plankinton, South Dakota. This year they made 100 pounds of turkey, 35 pounds of ham and potatoes, and a roaster full of Mary's corn—a special dish that guests savor.
"I am thankful to the Lord that we can serve others," said Mary. "Thanksgiving is our family's favorite holiday. I love to cook, and my girls love to cook."
The Rhoades began serving a Thanksgiving meal to others when Mary worked with the meal program at the Senior Citizen Center in the town of 781 people. She knew that on Thanksgiving, there would be no hot meal served, and several people would be alone.
“I realized how many senior citizens didn't have family coming back to see them or didn't have a meal for Thanksgiving,” she said. “So that year, we loaded the family, at that time we had young children. I told my parents and relatives that we would feed them at the Senior Citizen Center. We invited any one of the senior citizens to come.”
After two years, the guests outgrew the space. Then, one of the people Mary had worked with at the Senior Center opened a restaurant.
"We outgrew the center," Mary said. "They had a restaurant. They let us use the back section of the restaurant to serve our Thanksgiving meal."
Each year, Mary and Steve would buy the food, store it, cook it at their house, and haul it to the restaurant. In 2004, they noticed that a few people would like to come but needed help getting around. They depended on walkers and wheelchairs. So they needed to find a place that was accessible.
"We were looking for a different place that was handicap accessible, where we could use the kitchen instead of just bringing everything already cooked and ready to serve—and then bringing everything home with us. So that is when we started at the Methodist church. We've been there ever since," explained Mary.
As members of the congregation, Mary and Steve knew that the building was handicap accessible, there was a big kitchen, and that the congregation would help.
"In different years, the church has done different things. Some people have joined in to help serve, cook, or clean up," said Mary. "Just opening the doors of the facility and being able to cook there has an answer to prayer for us. We would not be able to do the Thanksgiving meal without the church."
Serving 72 meals this year—52 in-person meals and 20 take-out meals, required donations, planning, and organization. The Rhoades collect coupon cards throughout the year from anyone who will share them to purchase turkey at a grocery store in a nearby community. In addition, community members plant extra potatoes and corn in their gardens to donate to the meal. One gentleman, who always attends the Thanksgiving feast, pays for his meal by donating ham.
Volunteers help buy groceries, haul supplies to the church, and cook meals. The volunteers are family and community members. Steve takes the responsibility of getting all the supplies to the church with the help of others.
"We have a method down. My daughters come to the church with me early Thanksgiving morning with a couple of gals from town. First, we peel potatoes. Then, we whip salads together that morning. Then, we try to prepare the hot items for that day," explains Mary.
New this year was a gluten-free option for dressing, gravy, and salads. "I make homemade gravy. This year I made gluten-free gravy. There is homemade dressing, stovetop dressing, and gluten-free dressing. We want to make things for everyone," said Mary.
There are no expectations for payment or to bring food, but some guests who come to the meal bring a dish to share, like a salad or dessert. Once the meal is served, people will visit with each other. Some will help with dishes and taking care of the leftovers.
Mary said, "It used to be that my family would take all the leftovers home. We ate leftovers all week. So, my husband said, 'You know, some of these families that are coming to join us don't have food for the long weekend. The kids are out of school. Let's give them the food in containers and send it home with the families.' So now, when everybody leaves, they are taking food home."
Sending leftovers home is a gift, especially for one family. Part of the family lives in Mitchell, which is 25 miles east of Plankinton. Another part of the family lives by Chamberlain, 25 miles west of Plankinton. They have limited income, so they meet in Plankinton each year to enjoy Thanksgiving together.
"The family meets and has Thanksgiving with us. One year we noticed the kids were going through the line, and they filled their plates up just high. They went out to their car and came back in. I overheard the kids saying, 'well, now we'll have enough for the weekend.' So, I told my husband we were not hurting and had enough food. Since that day, we have bagged up all the leftovers and sent them home with others," Mary said.
After a few days' rest, Mary and Steve look forward to next Thanksgiving. Their servant hearts see this meal as giving back and showing up as the light of Christ for others.
"It doesn't cost much more to have people join us. You see the families coming, and they're just thankful. They got a hot meal, leftovers, and some fellowship. It just keeps us going. We enjoy doing it. I thank the Lord that we can help other people and be with my family and stuff. Even if it was just for that one day," shared Mary.