CHARLOTTESVILLE — Each year, they put out the same call: dine on ham and beans, soup and cornbread; in exchange, consider donating to help a family in need at Christmas.

Well before others’ thoughts have turned to the holiday season, members of the Charlottesville Friends Church conduct a fundraiser benefiting its Christmas outreach programs. In October, the church’s ham and bean dinner — as it’s modestly and affectionately known — is hosted at the Charlottesville Lions Club with a simple menu including homemade vegetable soup, pies and cookies, coffee and lemonade.

Ask anyone around, and they’ll say Luellen is in charge. That is, of course, everyone but Luellen Gustin herself.

Story continues below gallery

Shuffling around the kitchen at the Lions Club earlier this year, she laughed a bit at the thought of being called the leader of one of the church’s largest fundraisers. She’s not one for taking credit, not after so many years with so many willing hands ready to help.

But at 81, Gustin admits she might be the organizer with most experience planning the annual dinner and dishing up bowls of soup to community members. So, perhaps it’s fitting they look to her to steer the ship, she concedes with an unmistakable giggle.

The Charlottesville Friends Church has been hosting its ham and bean dinner for more than 30 years, church members said. They serve as many as 130 people each year and collect some $2,000, which is then divided among various Christmas-related charities, church treasurer Bruce Munden said. It’s not much, but it’s enough to support a number of organizations that work to make the holidays easier for struggling families.

The groups that benefit are ever-changing, because they are chosen by a vote of the congregation, though Toys for Tots, the Hancock Hope House and Santa’s Helpers in Greenfield usually are among the choices, Munden said.

But the church knows sometimes the need is much closer to home.

If they identify members of their own church family as being particularly down on their luck one year, they’ll give some of the funding directly to them, he said.

No one recalls how the church first decided on the menu of soup and cornbread (unfortunately, most of those who might remember are gone now, members say), but Gustin expects it was because of the simple recipe that yielded enough for a big crowd.

What truly makes the meal successful is the teamwork that goes into it, Gustin said. Planning begins a few months ahead of time, and cooking starts about two days before the hungry crowds roll in.

The women of the church get together to make the signature soup of northern beans and cubed ham. The men set up the tables and chairs the day of the event. Many donate pies and cookies and angel food cake to sweeten the meal.

It runs like clockwork, but even after all these years, organizers take extra time to make sure those who come hungry — physically or spiritually — leave satisfied.

One church member, Phyllis Jessup, spends two afternoons each year ahead of the dinner writing messages of thanks on every napkin that will be used – a little personal note to make every visitor feel special, she said.

Perhaps Gustin is slow to take credit because of members like Jessup — and all those who have pitched in to make the event come off without a hitch each year.

They’ve been putting on the event for so long, it’s like a well-oiled machine, which makes the job of keep everything organized a fairly easy one, Gustin said.

It’s those little things that make the dinner so wonderful and what keep people coming back year after year. In one afternoon, they are able to feed a crowd; and from what they gain in that afternoon, they are able to help so many more, she said.

“That’s what churches are supposed to do,” Gustin said.

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.