By Maddy Vitale
Mike Lukens knows how to prep food for hundreds of people, juggle tasks, and work with the many dedicated volunteers who help with the Community Christmas Dinner at St. Peter’s Methodist Church, 8th Street and Central Ave. in Ocean City.
But every year – and there have been 27 of them, he still gets a tear in his eye when the preparations are almost complete.
“I walked around the dining room tonight. It is just gorgeous. I had tears in my eyes. The food is packed away in the oven and in the refrigerator,” Lukens remarked Saturday night, after a 12-hour day of prepping the food and setting the tables. “The floors are mopped. We are ready. It is just beautiful. I love it.”
The flyer for the free Christmas day dinner sums it up: “All Are Welcome!” Rich or poor, young or old, in need or in need of giving.”
Turkey with all the trimmings, ham, stuffing, gravy, roasted red potatoes, mashed potatoes and deserts are just some of the delicious foods that will be on the menu, Lukens said.
Every year anywhere from 400 to 1000 people have entered the doors of the church to dine from all over the area. Some don’t have anywhere to go on Christmas, others just enjoy the company, others wouldn’t have anything good to eat if they didn’t attend. Transportation is provided, and parking is free.
“This is for everyone. People in the Gardens who live alone come. People whose kids are in California come,” Lukens said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s a free dinner. If you are here, you eat.”
And somehow, they always manage to provide enough food.
“We always have enough. Even times when we thought we would be short, we always had enough,” Lukens said, adding that he estimates about 1,200 dinners will be served Christmas day. “It’s a full dinner. It’s Christmas.”
Meals are served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.. They are also delivered to people who can’t leave their homes and take-out meals are available.
Lukens said what he finds most rewarding is preparing for the feast and seeing what many of the 50-plus volunteers take from the experience.
“Most of the people behind the serving line have been there at least 15 years and say they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he said. “There is Pete the mashed potato man. He has been making the mashed potatoes for 20 years.”
There is even entertainment. A pianist performs, and people also enjoy a karaoke machine. Each table has a poinsettia centerpiece. There is also a room filled with clothing and toys for people in need.
And it all began with Luken’s wife Peaches.
“It was a typical Christmas. The house was a wreck and we were watching football. My wife said, ‘You know, I just can’t stop thinking about people without anywhere to go on Christmas. All of my life there has been abundance.’”
The following month the Lukens family created a Christmas dinner at the old youth center. The event quickly outgrew the venue, and they moved to a church for the next four or five years, but again, needed more space.
For the last 20 years the dinner has been at St. Peter’s Methodist Church.
“St. Pete’s has been great to us,” Lukens said. “They give us the keys and we all work together.”
Lukens daughter Halley Martinez, 30, who was a toddler when her parents started the dinner, is instrumental in the dinner.
The event holds a lot of significance for the Lukens family, because of what it means to so many.
“It is as much for the volunteers, as it is for people who come to eat,” Lukens said. “People like to help people and not everyone can figure out how to do that and this is something people can do.
For more information about the dinner or if you wish to volunteer call Mike Lukens at 609-892-3482.