My childhood church had a cinderblock, cement-floored basement that we used as a fellowship hall. We had huge sliding paneled partitions that could be rolled out for Sunday School or Awana club meetings.
But, on special occasions, the partitions were rolled to one end, and folding tables came out – each one decorated with a white paper and a centerpiece. It was time for a Baptist potluck.
Baptists like to eat and cook together – thus they organize a tremendous number of potluck dinners. We had potlucks for funerals, for special occasions, for retirements, for youth group graduations.
At every potluck, the women would bring out a huge metal coffee pot, and set up three eight-foot long tables in front to hold the bounty of food offerings. Women would come bustling in before church carrying casserole dishes covered with kitchen towels.
As a child, the selection of food was intimidating. I remember trying to remember which dish my mom brought. There were casseroles made of hamburger. The Evans always brought wonderful Mexican food. There was usually lasagna, chicken and noodles, and always an assortment of salads.
While a seven-layer salad spilling over with mayonnaise and peas was popular, Baptist were best known for jello salads. Every type of jello was represented. There were strange ones containing carrots in orange jello or spinach and cottage cheese in lime jello. There were traditional strawberry and banana or frozen jello mixed with ice cream.
Once the pastor prayed, we would stand in long lines to get our food. By the time the last table was in line, the first table was back for seconds. Meanwhile, Mrs. Prater and the members of the Women’s Missionary Committee would hurry back and forth from the kitchen, reheating items and refilling coffee and water pitchers.
Those potlucks were like a huge family Thanksgiving dinner that happened multiple times a year.
As quickly as our church potlucks began, they would be over. What was left would be scraped in the garbage or covered with tin foil. Mrs. Prater and the other ladies would swarm the kitchen washing and scrubbing. The men would rip off the white paper table covers and fold the tables. The children would drag the chairs to one end with a clattering and banging.
At last, the sliding partitions were back in place for next week’s classes. We would leave with smiles and hugs and full bellies.
The church I go to now is larger and fancier than the one I attended as a young girl. Potlucks have been replaced by catered dinners. But for me, they just aren’t the same.
I have a warm spot in my heart for this group of people who played such an integral role in my childhood and my faith. If it is true that the family who eats together, stays together, then our church family was cemented by a solid bond of food and faith. We loved gathering together and looked forward to times when we were in church from morning until evening.
Although I have attended many churches since those early days at First Baptist, I have never again known the type of community that was well-represented by pyrex casserole dishes and orange shredded carrot jello.