BANGOR, Maine — Ryan Almanzar couldn’t be with his family in New York City for Thanksgiving.
So, the 19-year-old student, who is studying welding at the Penobscot Job Corps Center, decided to spend the afternoon at CityReach Church, located in the former YMCA on Hammond Street in Bangor.
“I heard they were having a little event here,” he said Thursday while working to finish a plate loaded with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. “Since I couldn’t be with my family, I decided I’d to be with others who couldn’t be with theirs. I usually get overwhelmed at events like this but it’s very welcoming. You can definitely feel a good energy.”
That’s the kind of reaction Pastor Bobby Bledsoe was hoping for when he and his congregation decided to offer CityReach’s first Thanksgiving dinner for the community.
“Every year I love to go home, eat turkey, watch football and eat pies,” Bledsoe said shortly before more than 100 volunteers lined up to serve nearly 150 diners. “This year, I felt like me and my family are so blessed and we have so much, I said, instead of staying home, why don’t we make this a family event at the church. Let’s help people who may not have a family, who may not have a church, who may not be able to watch football.”
“The whole church bought into the idea,” he said.
So did many community members, according to Bledsoe. Because CityReach doesn’t have a kitchen, food had to be brought to the church already prepared. Rows of tables were set up in the church’s worship space as volunteers delivered meals to diners, then sat down to join them. Two big screen televisions, which on Sundays usually display the words to hymns and Bible verses, showed the traditional Thanksgiving Day football games.
“I came here to spend time with my community,” Nathan Lawrence Rehlander, 30, of Brewer said. “There are a lot of people here that I consider my family by extension.”
CityReach was one of dozens of locations around Maine where a free meal was offered to anyone who walked through the door Thanksgiving Day. Members of the University of Maine women’s basketball team helped serve dinner at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.
The Hammond Street church filled a void in the Queen City when Manna Ministries was unable to offer a sitdown meal as it has in recent years because of financial difficulties. Manna did give away thousands of turkeys and the trimmings to people who might not have been able to afford the traditional dinner otherwise.
Bledsoe said that while the Thanksgiving Day event was new for CityReach, it helped fulfill the church’s mission.
“We feel that church is not just a place for Sunday but a place that is supposed to impact the community,” he said. “A church should be so well integrated to the community that if the church closed down the community would suffer. We want to be a church that makes that impact so that our community knows we’re here.”
A former gang member who struggled with drug addiction and bounced in and out of jail in his native New Jersey, Bledsoe, 38, of Bangor founded the church more than three years ago, and he launched a God-centered program to give people recovering from addictions the tools they need to be productive members of society and spread the “good news” of the Gospel.
“The Lord gave me a vision to reach the ones nobody wants, and he’d give me the ones everybody wants in return,” he said last year. “I’ve always wanted to be in the darkest places so we could be the greatest light.”
The congregation continues to work toward purchasing the former YMCA building in which it currently rents space.
“The vision for this building is to be the City Reach Hope Center, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week church where anytime anybody who’s looking for help, whether they’re prostitutes, drug addicts, gang members or just somebody who’s broken and hurt from life, will be able to knock on the door and find help. We are asking the community to help invest in lives being changed,” he said last year.
If the church is successful in buying and renovating the building once owned by the Young Men’s Christian Association, Bledsoe would put the word “Christian” back into a space used by an organization that has over the last 50 years de-emphasized its religious roots.