Long before the gates opened at 1p.m. at in Lawrenceville Saturday, the surrounding streets and I-85 northbound were jammed with waiting cars. For the second year, 12Stone Church gave away free Christmas meals.
The church partnered with the HoneyBaked Ham Corporation, Signature Foods, the Gwinnett Braves and Sunbelt Rentals to provide a “meal and more” to families affected by unemployment. Each family received a HoneyBaked Ham or turkey, a week’s worth of groceries, four tickets to a Gwinnett Braves home game in the 2012 season and a “Christmas is Love” CD, a project from 12Stone musicians.
The idea for the giveaway began last year with a challenge from senior Pastor Kevin Myers for members to express their faith through generosity, using the Biblical miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand as their model. This year, they decided to increase the giving. “The economic outlook hasn’t improved for many families since last year and people began calling the church office in November asking if we were helping families again this year," said Myers. "This is one way we can make a significant contribution in our community.”
12Stone volunteers lined the parking lot of like a drive-thru maze, with groups assigned to stations. Cars were let in four lanes at a time. Volunteers loaded trunks and back seats with the goodies and greeted each family with words of encouragement. "I just wanted to be a part of this," said Natirra Scott a 12Stone member. "If it involves me picking up a box and putting it in someone's car, I can do that."
Erin Grigsby was so inspired by last year's effort, she was compelled to help out this year. "I just really wanted to do hands on work," said Grigsby. "I wanted to do more than just donate... and help make a difference for these families for the holiday." "It’s a blessing," said Rosalind Hudson who was part of the first group through the line. "I’ve been out of work for a couple years and just for people to do this, it is totally a blessing."
Volunteers were greeted with "Thank You's" and shouts of "Merry Christmas." Others were so overcome by the generosity, they shed tears going through the line. "This is 12Stone, this is who we are," said Russ Walden, who volunteered with his wife and brother-in-laws. "We don't require anything back. That's what Jesus did. He served people. He met their needs and that's how He ministered."
While the efforts inside the stadium were well organized, residents were not pleased with the traffic back-ups. Many complained of having to ditch their cars and walk. Shoppers coming to the Mall of Georgia were stuck and local businesses were deserted by mid afternoon because no one could get in. "It was one of the worst traffic experiences I've ever witnessed in my life," said Andy Migliorie of Lawrenceville. "It caused more heartache for residents and businesses within the mall area and I would think the county and the church would rethink their good deeds for next year."
For those who received a meal, the long wait was worth it. "I'm single and I've been unemployed for two years," said Vernon who declined to give his last name. "For me, this means a good Christmas."
By the time, the giveaway ended around 4p.m. there were still many more cars in line. "There are a lot of people hurting," said Liza Kremer who waved to exiting drivers. "We're just telling people we're out here, we love them and that there's somewhere they can turn when life gets really tough."
In addition to Saturday's distribution, 2,800 Christmas packages were given to the unemployed of , single moms and families who responded to a letter that was sent out through the Gwinnett County School system. "It means a great deal to give back to the community," said Chuck Keller. "It's what God wants us to do."