AUGUSTA — It wasn’t yet noon when a volunteer at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church scraped the bottom of the steam table pan of mashed potatoes.

About 15 minutes after the church’s annual community dinner was supposed to have started, the five take-home meals a woman had just requested would have to be packed without potatoes.

“Give them extra stuffing,” said volunteer Earl Kingsbury, of Augusta. “What else can we do?”

“I think more people showed up because of the weather,” said Jim Waterman, of Freedom, another volunteer. He looked outside and noted the dry roads.

“Well, they won’t go home hungry,” Kingsbury said.

The last slice of turkey breast was served about 15 minutes later, followed by the final spoonful of stuffing, leaving only peas and carrots at the end. But it did not appear that anyone was turned away without something to eat, and maybe some gloves or shampoo or small toys to take home from the gift room.

The empty trays were a sign of success in the church’s 30-year tradition of serving a hot meal on Christmas. Between meals delivered, served at the church or packed to take home, the church fed about 350 people.

“Our goal, of course, is to run out of food,” said Bruce Hubbard, a Unity resident who with his wife, Jane, has volunteered at the dinner every Christmas since their daughter died in 2008.

Volunteers started arriving at the church at 7 or 7:30 a.m. to slice pies, brew coffee and pack meals for delivery. Starting at about 9:30, drivers dropped off about 170 meals for people who could not make it to the church.

The dinner was supposed to start at 11:30 a.m., but the first person arrived at 9, so the people in charge decided to start serving at about 10 a.m. instead of keeping guests waiting.

The temperature was below freezing outside, but the church kitchen stayed warm and humid thanks to the steam table, oven, dishwasher and a dozen volunteers. Neither the equipment nor the people got a break.

“I love working in kitchens,” Kingsbury said. “It’s exciting. You get the adrenaline rush.”

The kitchen was busy but orderly. Peter Matthies, of Augusta, was in charge of dishing up carrots and led off an assembly line of volunteers who filled plates and take-out containers.

Shortages weren’t limited to food. Beth Pfeffer, of Litchfield, couldn’t get dessert plates through the dishwasher fast enough to keep up.

“I’m going to give you bowls,” she told another volunteer, “because you know pie tastes the same in a bowl as on a plate. And Christmas pie tastes extra special in a bowl.”

Volunteers stationed in the dining room fetched plates of food and cups of coffee at the request of diners. Some sang carols or just chatted with people who came to eat.

“Every year there are a lot of people, and they really enjoy it,” said Phyllis Tessman, of Augusta. “A lot of them, I’m sure, don’t have anything. I don’t know if some of them are homeless. They don’t ask me questions, so I don’t ask them questions.”

The fellowship can be just as important as the food, Pastor Jonathan Vogel said. He said he’s proud of the volunteers from his congregation but also ones who come from other congregations or aren’t affiliated at all.

“One of the things I love about Prince of Peace is they take very seriously that God calls us to help our neighbor,” Vogel said. “One of the needs of many people is food, but even more, so is human connection.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
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