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Volunteers, homeless gather for Thanksgiving lunch

Melissa Rogers, who is currently homeless, helps blow up balloons to decorate for the celebration.
Melissa Rogers, who is currently homeless, helps blow up balloons to decorate for the celebration.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Kenneth Thopsen lived in Florida until Hurricane Irma forced him out. At 45 years old, he journeyed north to Massachusetts — losing his luggage in the process — to stay with family members in the Berkshires.

“I went out there and I didn’t really connect with them,” Thopsen said. Now, he is one of thousands of homeless individuals in Boston. As he began to set up his new life, trying to find housing and health care, he turned to the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street, across from Boston Common.

“The church here has been a big part of helping me stay off the streets, away from drugs and alcohol,” Thopsen said. He says he goes there every Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and he’s part of the Black Seed Writers Group that produces The Pilgrim, a literary magazine.


On Thanksgiving Day, Thopsen was one of at least 200 people who came to the church for a holiday lunch. In an e-mail to the Globe, Rev. Tina Rathbone called the event a “topsy-turvy beauty.”
MANNA, a nonprofit focused on the homeless, hosted the event, in partnership with the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center and monks from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.

Emmanuel Church deacon Bob Greiner, 73, volunteered at the church on Thursday. Afterward, he took 17 meals to Stearns House, an apartment building for senior and disabled residents.

“People don’t always have somewhere to go,” he said, and the church community provides an “instant family.”

Claire Cocchi, 49, has been going to the Cathedral Church of St. Paul for the past five years. Cocchi herself was once homeless, along with her son and daughter.

“I know how it is to be out on the streets,” Cocchi said. “I lived three years in a shelter and two years out on the streets with two kids.”


Those kids are now 21 and 28 years old, but at the time, Cocchi’s son was only 3, and her daughter, 10.

“I’m always here, except when I’m sick,” Cocchi said. “I feel safe here. It’s like my safe zone. And I finally got to drink my drink.” She took a sip of hot tea from a portable mug wrapped in a bright pink cozy.

Volunteers from the Muslim community carve turkey Thursday for a meal at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in downtown Boston.
Volunteers from the Muslim community carve turkey Thursday for a meal at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in downtown Boston.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Cocchi’s brother, Stephen Murray, tells a similar story. The 59-year-old now works full-time at Minute-Man Car Wash in Medford, but he still frequents the church. “It gave me what I needed at the time” he was homeless, he said.

Murray said more people attended Thursday’s lunch than in past years, which is bittersweet: the church can serve more people, but that means there are more people to serve.

“It’s gotten bigger,” he said. “As the homeless population grows in the city, so does the need.”

For Lisa Marie Jenkins, 55, Thursday was her first time volunteering at the Thanksgiving lunch

. She was homeless for 17 years; for a while, she was living in a wooded area of Jamaica Plain after city officials had to close the Long Island Bridge for safety reasons. She recently found housing.

“I love what I’m doing because, grace of God, I was out there,” Jenkins said. “I would’ve been out there in my little tent, chilling, not seeing anyone.”

She said sometimes you just have to have faith.


Faith was what united people on Thursday. After volunteers helped decorate the hall where Thanksgiving lunch would be served, Rathbone led a multifaith service in the main worship hall.

Meanwhile, volunteers from the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center arrived with food.

After the service, those gathered feasted together on turkey, corn, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and what volunteer John Ahern called “Tina’s lumpy white sauce” — an apparent mash of bread and gravy.

Many Muslims pray in the church every Friday. For Mounir Ouhadi, 39, volunteering was a way to give back — and to give an example to “defy fear.”

“There’s no better example than this, to see people of all different backgrounds and faiths coming together for a common purpose,” Ouhadi said.

“To serve humanity. To make this life better for everyone, regardless of how they look or what they believe or what God they believe in.”

Preaching during the multifaith service, Rathbone emphasized the creation of community, however temporary it may be.

“This, right now, is your home, and we welcome you very, very deeply,” Rathbone said.

Rowan Walrath can be reached at rowan.walrath@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @rowanwalrath.