Lawrences celebrate 50 years of Thanksgiving service

On Sunday, November 18, a half-century of service will be celebrated as the 50th anniversary of the Lawrence Family Thanksgiving Dinner will be held at the First United Methodist Church (FUMC) fellowship hall, located at 309 Cedar Street in Sweetwater.Starting at 11:30 a.m., a full Thanksgiving meal-- "with all of the trimmings and none of the cleanup"--will be served and continue until 1 p.m. Providing this year's decorations at the event will be church member Karan Bergstrom.Tickets will be $7 for adults and $5 for kids ages two through 12 years old. To obtain tickets or for more information, call 325-236-6617. All proceeds from the event will benefit the FUMC youth group, known as SHEEP (Serving Him by Exhibiting Eternal Purpose).But how did this well-known family start such a community-wide outreach? In meeting with some members of the Lawrence family--brothers Jack and Tere; the wife of the late Jere Lawrence, Millie; and former Sweetwater mayor Jay--they shared the background behind the dinner and how far it has come in the past fifty years.In 1962, Jere's father, J.M. Lawrence, found himself in a tight financial situation. Though he was in the grocery business, J.M. struggled to pay his tithe--ten percent of his income--to the church. "Times were tough," recollected Jay, "and he felt bad."But with the resources he did have, J.M. and his wife Thelma came up with an idea to hold a dinner in which he would cook a meal; the money raised would then be used to pay his tithe. As a result, the whole Lawrence family has been involved with the effort ever since.Toward the 1980s, however, the funds were shifted to a new project. All of the money raised from the Thanksgiving dinner would be given to the church's youth department to allow them to continue events like small activities or larger projects, such as the annual youth group ski trip or a summertime mission trip. But the event has also expanded beyond the church walls. A majority of ticket sales come from people within the community, with members from other churches in town also taking part in the festivities to make it a community-wide supper.And with church members and other community residents--even some as far as Colorado City in the past--coming together for the meal, the church makes sure that enough room is available for everyone. Jack recalled that at one dinner, as many as 300 people were served the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.Behind the scenes, 40 members of the Lawrence family will cook and help serve at the dinner. Each Lawrence family will cook at least one turkey, while the Lawrence men will also cook the side dishes. Anything that comes to mind for a traditional Thanksgiving meal--from dressing, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, gravy, rolls, fruit salad and pie--will be served at the dinner. But one thing the Lawrence men agree on is that there is no set recipe for the meal, as each year brings a new method.Each year also makes for a fun time for the family, as they recalled past memories of kitchen mishaps. Leading up to the event, the preparations also bring them together, starting as early as Saturday afternoon and continuing early on Sunday morning before church to get everything lined up.And as the meal continues, the teenagers and children of the church will work as servers by handing out dessert and refilling drinks. Millie said that she enjoyed seeing the smallest church members--as young as two years old--standing on boxes, handing out rolls in oversized gloves, masking their little hands.But as the meal comes to an end, the cleanup is just beginning for the teenagers. Collectively, the family has always hoped that the dinner teaches the youth group about service in supporting their own youth group, as well as the church."If there's no youth," said Tere, "then there's no church." He hopes that by keeping the teenagers involved, the church can continue to grow and prosper, pointing out that the teens don't earn money by just showing up to the dinner. The Lawrence family makes sure that they actually earn their dues by setting up before the meal, serving during the dinner, and cleaning up afterward.The joy the family gets from their service is evident, but Millie gave an emotional explanation as to the roots of the meal, something the family has displayed throughout the past fifty years."It's about a man being dedicated to his church," she said.And as they continue their fun, family tradition, the Lawrences hope to make an impact within the lives of teenagers, their church members and all throughout the community.