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As covid fears fade, Arkansas Thanksgiving traditions resume

by Frank E. Lockwood | November 20, 2021 at 3:30 a.m.
Volunteers Diane Gaynor (from left), her grandson Caden Herrera, 9, and volunteer Jaren Garcia, slice smoked turkeys for the Salvation Army Thanksgiving meal at Genesis Church in Fayetteville in 2019. With covid-19 rates down and vaccines readily available, more churches than last year are holding Thanksgiving worship services and meals. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

One year after covid-19 largely derailed public celebrations of the holiday, many houses of worship are returning to their old Thanksgiving traditions.

At Levy Baptist Church in North Little Rock, worshippers will gather in the sanctuary Tuesday evening to worship and then head to the fellowship hall for dinner.

Families with last names ending in A through G will bring a salad; those with names ending in H through N are asked to bring dessert. Everyone else is supposed to bring vegetables or a side dish.

Church deacons will provide the turkey breasts.

Attendance is anybody's guess, Pastor Steven Tiner said.

"In past years, we would have about 120, but we just don't know with covid what the comfortability level will be," he said.

After canceling the event in 2020, many members indicated they were ready to gather together once again.

At Levy Baptist, people are grateful for God's bountiful blessings, but they're also appreciative of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

"Our congregation is so heavily vaccinated. That makes us feel a little more comfortable," Tiner said. "I've had the booster and most of them have, too."

At St. Mary's Catholic Church in Altus, the annual Thanksgiving dinner has been canceled for the second straight year.

Prior to covid, it drew 700 to 800 people, perhaps more, according to Vickie Ross, a longtime member of the parish.

"It's quite a crowded situation," she said. "Our kitchen is so small. For the big crowd that we have, we just didn't think it'd be safe for everybody," she said.

"They do plan, unless something drastic keeps happening, on having it next year," she added.

In Little Rock, the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner has been canceled for the second straight year, due to lingering covid-19 concerns, organizers said.

Other Arkansas churches have decided to proceed, including Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rogers, which will hold a Thanksgiving Eve service at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Bella Vista Lutheran Church, which will gather for worship at 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving.

In Walnut Ridge, 130 miles northeast of Little Rock, the Lawrence County Ministerial Association has organized a community-wide Thanksgiving service, its first since 2019. First Assembly of God at 1800 W. Main St., will host the event at 6 p.m. Sunday; Donnie Miller, pastor of Lake Charles Full Gospel Church in Black Rock, will deliver the sermon.

Dennis Calaway, who pastors two United Methodist Churches in the area and heads the ministerial alliance, expects attendance will be lower than in previous years.

"Pre-covid, we would probably have 100 to 150 in Walnut Ridge," he said.

Post-covid, "I'll be excited if we see 75 to 100," he said.

Twenty months after covid closed much of Arkansas, Calaway is glad to see things beginning to return to normal.

And he's grateful, too.

"I'm thankful for good health. I'm thankful that this pandemic seems to be subsiding, and for all my family and friends and all the blessings that God has bestowed upon us," he said.

In Bella Vista, First United Methodist Church won't be holding a special Thanksgiving service, but they will be giving away turkey dinners Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m.

Preparations are already underway, church administrator Amy Gilmore said earlier this week.

"The person who's cooking has already started shopping," she said.

People needing meals need to register ahead of time at tinyurl.com/x4nv5d76.

There will be enough food to serve 150 people.

Due to covid-19 concerns, it won't be a sit-down dinner. People will receive their meals in to-go boxes, which will be distributed outside the church.

"The pastors are out there handing it out and they offer prayers if you'd like," she said.

Members of Community Park Church in Bryant are serving a Thanksgiving dinner from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

When they did it last year, it was takeout only.

"We didn't have dine-in because of covid. We wanted to keep everybody safe," co-pastor Diana Graves said.

"We fed 500 people last year. ... We're really preparing more for this year," she said.

This time, visitors can drive through or dine inside the church at 4630 S. Shobe Road.

Becca Martin-Brown of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette contributed to this report.

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