By Kara Witherow, Editor
The members of Burns Memorial United Methodist Church are living out God’s call to “look after orphans and widows” (James 1:27) with their annual widow and widower’s banquet.
Every year on the third Thursday of September, the church opens the doors of its fellowship hall to the area’s widows and widowers and serves them a spread of fried mullet, cheese grits, hushpuppies, slaw and lemon pie.
This year, 92 guests from Cotton and the surrounding communities came and feasted on the wonderful food and warm fellowship.
What began nearly 40 years ago as a small birthday party has grown into a much-anticipated community event, says Rev. Paula Lewis, pastor of Burns Memorial UMC and Hartsfield United Methodist Church.
In the early 1970s, longtime Cotton resident Fleeta Mae Whitston, a widow herself, invited six widowed friends to join her family for her birthday dinner. They enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to do it again the next year. And the next. And the next. The tradition continues today.
“The women had such a good time and said how nice it would be if there was something like that for them because they aren’t often included in things,” said Fleeta Whitston’s daughter-in-law, Faye Whitston. Without husbands or nearby family members, many of Fleeta Whitston’s widowed friends were unable to get out much and were lonely.
The small gathering of a few close friends to celebrate Fleeta Whitston’s birthday mushroomed into a ministry that reaches out to the residents of Cotton and the surrounding communities. The Whitston family hosted the supper for about 18 years, but when it grew too large, the members of Burns Memorial UMC decided that it would become a mission and ministry of the church.
“We are well known for being a friendly church that reaches out to the community,” said Nannette Roberts, a member of Burns Memorial UMC. “It thrills us to be able to have this because it means so much to the ones that come.”
Those who help organize, cook and serve the supper enjoy it as much as those who attend, said Faye Whitston, who has been a widow herself for about a year.
“It involves the whole church and we all really enjoy it,” she said. “I think we have as much fun as they do.”
Volunteers of all ages get involved and help make the banquet a success.
“The men of the church do the cooking, the women bring pies and the youth serve. It’s an event that we all really enjoy,” Whitston said.
Sometimes there’s a short program, but most of the time is dedicated to food and fellowship. Many of the attendees aren’t able to see each other often, and this night is an important social outing for a lot of them.
“The women will just get up and go from table to table to talk to each other,” Whitston said. “The fellowship is the thing that they most enjoy. They really like to visit with one another; sometimes they only see each other this one time each year.”
The annual supper is an important ministry of the church to the community, Rev. Lewis says. It gives church members an opportunity to serve those within their immediate community and through that service, to grow spiritually.
“The widows and widowers see that people really love them and they’re not forgotten about just because they’ve grown older or because a spouse has passed away,” she said. “They still matter to people.
“Our mission as a church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Bishop King's focus this year is ‘Never Alone.’ We are never alone in our journey in this world and in our Christian walk. If people feel alone then we are doing something wrong as the body of Christ. I think that this ministry embodies that philosophy. So often, as people get older and spouses pass away the ones left behind are forgotten about and are indeed alone. However, the Whitston family, and ultimately the church as they embraced the ministry as their own, decided that the people in this community and the surrounding communities would never feel like they were alone. We are coming up beside our brothers and sisters in Christ and helping to fill in the places in their lives that otherwise might have a void.”