Portage Presbyterian invites all to 20th annual Christmas Day Dinner

December 21, 2018

Tara Bandekow volunteered for the Portage Presbyterian Church’s first-ever Christmas Day Dinner in 1998, and in a few days, she’ll offer her services to the 20th anniversary edition — an event she measures in family ties.

“My son grew up with this,” she said Tuesday sitting alongside other volunteers in the church basement — the place where Cordella Connor plays Christmas music on the piano, where Mrs. Claus brings what some people believe is the world’s best fudge and where the church serves ham, turkey and more to about 150 people.

Every year Bandekow’s husband, Andrew Bandekow, makes meal deliveries and their 13-year-old son, Gabe Bandekow, “does anything we ask of him” on site. On Tuesday they’ll bring a new family member to the Christmas dinner — Thomas Huang, from China, who arrived in Portage in September and is spending his sophomore year at Portage High School.

The Bandekows are among at least 30 volunteers, organizer Nancy Schaper estimated, but the list of contributors is much, much longer.

Festival Foods donated $100 and provided discounts for the food, Katheryn Curtis once again donated three tubs of ice cream and the church, year after year, receives numerous cash and other food donations from the community.

“We couldn’t do it without them,” Schaper said of all the contributors. “People become very generous around Christmastime, and they want to see the event grow. And it has.”

The Rev. Dave Hankins has led the church for 23 years — his entire family taking part in every dinner since 1998. He agreed there’s just something different about the dinner today compared to the first one held in 1998.

“My kids don’t know of any other Christmas. This is tradition for them,” Hankins said of his two children, ages 22 and 24. “The dinner started because we recognized the need for people to receive a good meal, but we’ve seen such a variety of people come through here over the years and we’ve realized the community aspect of this is so important.”

He recalled one dinner where an individual had been stranded in Portage — how the police had brought this person to the church for a warm meal. “Nobody is ever turned away,” he said. “Income doesn’t play a part in it anymore.”

Tara Bandekow, Schaper and Rosemary Minnema, another longtime volunteer, agreed with Hankins that the event had, somewhere along the way, lost its “charitable” feel, in a good way.

“The money isn’t important,” said Minnema, who joined the church in 1986. People who show up early to the dinner invariably get sent upstairs for a church service that begins at 11 a.m., she and Schaper pointed out, heading upstairs where they might enjoy a warm sermon and the stained glass feature of the baby Jesus, created by Sue Carney.

“Nobody should be alone on Christmas,” Schaper said.

Meal deliveries are intended for homebound community members, and they should call the church before noon on Friday to schedule their delivery.

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