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Cedar Rapids community Christmas meal continues to serve those in need

Volunteer Jim Milden, involved with organizing the meal since 1980s, steps back in light of chemotherapy

Lee Ann Dielschneider or Cedar Rapids watches as Quinn Jensen, 12, of Cedar Rapids cuts open a box, to be recycled, among the donations Wednesday at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids.

(Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Lee Ann Dielschneider or Cedar Rapids watches as Quinn Jensen, 12, of Cedar Rapids cuts open a box, to be recycled, among the donations Wednesday at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Jim Milden, 70, was diagnosed in June with stage 4 colon cancer, he thought, “I’d better slow down a little.”

For him, slowing down means still doing a lot. In between twice-a-month chemotherapy treatments at the Hall Perrine Cancer Center, he teaches citizenship classes at Kirkwood Community College, volunteers at Mission of Hope’s food bank and teaches adult Sunday school at his church, St. Paul’s United Methodist.

“My life is in God’s hands from this point on. You only have so much life, and you want to get as much done as you can,” said Milden, of Cedar Rapids. “When you get a diagnosis like that, you try to accomplish as much as you can and try to touch as many people as you can, positively, with the life you’ve got left.”

His wife, Rosalie, also was diagnosed this year with cancer, of the kidneys. “It’s been a rough year for the Mildens,” he said.

So he decided one thing he would step back from was organizing the community Christmas dinner St. Paul’s has hosted for more than 30 years. He’s been involved with the dinner since it started in the mid-1980s, and he has been leading the efforts to make it happen almost as long.

He said the meal, which last year served about 500 people, is meant as a physical offering of the Christmas spirit. It is free and open to all — this year, it’s Sunday instead of Christmas Day — with the idea that no one should be alone or hungry on the holidays.

“It’s the sharing of food, the sharing of fellowship,” he said. “There are a lot of people in need in this community. ... This dinner provides food and coming together.”

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The first community Christmas dinner was served in 1985 at the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Cedar Rapids; it moved to St. Paul’s the following year, in partnership with St. Mark’s United Methodist on the northwest side, which also began serving a free Christmas meal that year.

Milden was part of the Church in Society Committee, which took over organizing the event at St. Paul’s. He first helped by recruiting volunteers. A few years later, he was asked if he could take over leadership of the whole dinner.

“I reluctantly said I could,” he said. “In my former life, before I retired, I did project management, so this was a fairly simple thing for me to do. And I’ve been doing it since then.”

He calls it simple, but he also described the many tasks and people he coordinated to make the dinner happen. He has spreadsheets to keep track of it all, from organizing about 70 volunteers to making sure the plates and napkins get purchased.

When St. Paul’s Associate Pastor Jonathan Heifner heard Milden was stepping back, “I panicked,” he said.

But he and others stepped up to keep the dinner going.

“Our committee, Pastor Jonathon Heifner, Wendy Morton, Jennifer Petersen, Bill and Barb Satterkamp and myself are trying to do what one man did,” said church member Lu Wherry in an email. “We have always looked to Jim for leadership ... and we aspire to be as good as he has been.”

Milden and his wife have lived in Cedar Rapids since 1978 and raised two sons. When he retired two years ago from Apache Inc., a maker of industrial hoses and belts, he said he never considered just relaxing.

“I know people sit and watch TV all day in retirement. To me, that’s crazy. I’ve always been motivated by service to others,” he said. “I want to give back to the community, because the community is what made us who we are today.

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“Serving and volunteering is giving back what they gave us over the last 30 years — work and the pleasure of living here in a city like this.”

And though Milden has turned over the reigns of the Christmas dinner, he hasn’t left the picture entirely. He’s been offering advice, along with his pages of meticulous notes on what tasks need to be completed and when.

“We couldn’t do it if we didn’t have those,” Heifner said. “We’d still be panicking. He was really the force that made it all work and kept everything connected.”

Both Heifner and Milden emphasized that getting the meal served is a true community effort. Congregants raise about $1,500, mostly through a special offering and from sponsorships. That pays for 18 to 20 turkeys, about 10 large hams and pounds of potatoes, green beans and the ingredients for stuffing.

Church members donate desserts, as do local bakeries, which also provide bread. Florists donate hundreds of poinsettias, which diners are invited to take home them after the meal. Bags of groceries also are sent home with guests.

Work organizing the meal starts in October, beginning with recruiting the leadership committee and finding a cook to manage the food preparation. For a number of years, a class from Kirkwood Community College’s Culinary Arts program took on the task. This year, Laurie Niles, who has worked with the church’s Neighborhood Meals program, is leading the effort.

Dozens of volunteers make the meal happen each year, most recruited from within the congregation.

“Jim will stand in the hallway with his red jacket when it’s time to sign up,” Heifner said.

Others volunteers are funneled through the United Way, which also takes the calls for reservations and requests for meal deliveries for those unable to leave home.

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Reservations aren’t required — anyone can walk in for the meal — but they help with meal planning.

Last year about 140 meals were delivered to those too sick or frail to come to the church. Drivers fanned out with the boxed meals and also brought people without transportation back to the church to eat. When volunteers deliver meals, they often spend time talking with the recipients. That fellowship is an important part of the mission.

“We encourage that. It’s very much part of the Christmas spirit,” Heifner said. “I think the dignity that’s offered is key.”

Sunday’s meal will be followed by a family worship service that guests can choose to attend. The church also is working to make the dinner more welcoming to the African immigrant population that worships at St. Paul’s Swahili and Kirundi-language services. Some church members will be cooking East African dishes to serve alongside the turkey and mashed potatoes.

“There are possibilities that occur around sharing a meal together,” Heifner said.

Milden has seen that firsthand.

“I think at Christmastime, it’s just a matter of seeing how God gives his love to other people,” he said. “You’re sharing that love when you give to other people. That’s been a motivator over the years.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

IF YOU GO

l What: Community Christmas Eve meal

l When: Noon to 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 24

l Where: St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1340 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

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