As Baltimoreans prepare to celebrate Christmas, an army of volunteers served more than 1,000 holiday meals this weekend to help "Unite Baltimore" in the aftermath of April's riots.
Between Friday and Sunday, 30 staffers and volunteers from Mercy Chefs, a nonprofit faith-based group in Chesapeake, Va., brought a 42-foot mobile kitchen to cook $5,000 worth of food in Middle River, West Baltimore and downtown.
The group teamed with local volunteers to serve turkey, chicken, potatoes, stuffing and other holiday staples. Scores of men waited at tables on Sunday for volunteers to bring the hot food at the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center on Fallsway.
"You are our guests of honor today," Pastor Matt Stevens of Way of Life Community church told the group. "This isn't some stuff they just threw together today."
Sunday's feast took roots in 1999 when Janice Bowman spotted homeless people rummaging through trash cans for food near her church. The cosmetologist then started stashing away tips from customers in order to buy food for people living on downtown streets.
Other organizations then joined forces to form "Code Blue Christmas" to provide meals for homeless people around the holidays. The groups planned to serve between 300 and 500 meals with help from Mercy Chefs.
"God has blessed us," Bowman said as she fought back tears. "We take the church to them."
Organizers hope to feed 1,000 meals at next year's event, Stevens said, adding: "It's a critical time to do this. There's a lot of love that exists in Baltimore."
At the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center in Sandtown-Winchester on Saturday, police officers served 750 meals to residents, many of whom likely had negative encounters with law enforcement. Police chaplains and area pastors also helped serve and spearheaded conversations with gang members who attended the event.
On Friday, Mercy Chefs teamed with Somebody Cares at Way of Life Community Church in Middle River to feed the Christmas meals to another 500 residents. Church volunteers also wrapped Christmas gifts for the people to give to relatives.
This isn't Mercy Chefs' first trip to Baltimore. The group served 4,000 meals to police officers during April's unrest.
"We really wanted to come back and help unite the city," said spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez. "We saw the hearts of the people who care about this city. At the end of the day, this is their city."
Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, the chief of the department's Community Collaboration Division, agreed. He praised Stevens for helping bring Mercy Chefs to the city. As the Police Department works to repair its relationship with the community, these outreach events will help heal the city, Russell said Sunday.
"It was awesome," Russell said at the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center. "People got to see police in a different light."
Gary LeBlanc, a chef and Mercy Chefs' founder and president, said the group operates from private donations and typically marshals volunteers to provide meals in the aftermath of natural disasters. The group expanded its operation for outreach events when it realized the mobile units were not being used enough, LeBlanc said.
Mercy Chefs plans to make the four-hour journey up Interstate 95 to Baltimore when city leaders declare "Code Blue" emergencies as temperatures (including wind chill) hit 13 degrees.