Dozens of bins overflowing with canned corn, green beans, cranberry sauce, boxes of stuffing mix, instant mashed potatoes and the main attraction: more than 1,000 frozen turkeys, mean only one thing at Rio Vista Center in Phoenix – Turkey Day.
This year’s 19th annual food distribution ministry attracted more than 200 volunteers from area churches and up to 2,000 community residents who began lining up early on the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving to receive entrées, sides and desserts for a festive holiday meal.
Leaders and volunteers describe the highly organized event as “beautiful chaos.”
It features long lines of individuals, families and cars stretching across the ministry center’s parking lot. Along with the hundreds of turkeys, guests could opt for packages of ham, beef, fish or ribs instead.
As the gates officially opened at 9 a.m., snippets of conversation quickly filled the air: “Bring more birds – we need more turkeys.” “Have a blessed Thanksgiving.” “Another ham. Another ham. One more bag.”
Rosalinda Lopez was among this year’s Turkey Day recipients who arrived at 5 a.m. to claim her place in line.
“We get to have a turkey for Thanksgiving, so my family is really happy because of that,” she shared.
Expressing appreciation for the volunteers who make Turkey Day possible, Lopez said she is grateful for their commitment to “wake up early and come to give their time.”
Rio Vista, which has served the Phoenix area for several decades, has partnered in recent years with Arizona Baptist Children’s Services & Family Ministries as one of ABCS’s community resource centers. Rio Vista also partners with The Bridge Church, which meets in the resource center’s facilities. Donations from individuals, churches and area businesses help supply the annual food drive.
Affirming personal dignity
Aaron Norwood, The Bridge’s founding pastor, now serves full-time as director of Rio Vista Center. He recalls the first Turkey Day when volunteers distributed about 60 turkeys. That number grew to 200 the following year and has continued to expand over the years.
Noting that several nearby neighborhoods “are well below the poverty level,” Norwood said, “There are homeless people where we are, but a lot of families just have generational poverty.
“We always try to affirm people’s dignity when we serve them here,” he explained. “That’s always been very important to us.”
Citing the priority of building personal relationships, Norwood said he wants area residents to “know where they can come, know who we are, how they fit and how they belong here.” He added that many people “feel like it’s their church, even if they don’t come on Sunday.”
Offering a place of refuge
Israel Barraza, pastor of The Bridge, noted that “this area of Phoenix has always been a place where there’s a lot of brokenness. We understand there is a community here that just really needs help from Christ. Our goal is to be that church where everybody who has been here feels accepted and welcome.”
In addition to annual events such as Turkey Day, The Bridge’s Sunday morning worship features an English/Spanish bilingual service as well as one in English. The weekly services, known as the Sunday Brunch, include members and guests gathering around tables both for worship and a fellowship meal together.
“We want to be that refuge for the community,” Barraza affirmed. “At the same time, our focus is to preach and teach the gospel. That is our main thing always.
“We have a lot of members at our church now who first started when they came to get a food box,” he said. “It’s always a cycle; they come get a food box and then they see what we’re doing, so they want to volunteer. As they’re volunteering, they get to know the people here. We invite them to church, they start coming to church, and then they come to know Christ.
“I love that it just goes hand in hand with Turkey Day,” Barraza added. “Our hope is that they get to see God’s love in the way that we treat them and serve them.”
Nourishing soul and body
Claire Troth, a member of SouthGate Church in Phoenix, is a longtime Turkey Day volunteer who coordinates sorting and bagging food to distribute.
“We pray over every bag that it goes into the right hands, and that it blesses them and nourishes their soul and their body,” Troth said.
“A lot of people in our community are really hurting, especially this year,” she acknowledged. “I love that there are so many volunteers that want to give of their time to help.”
As he oversaw Turkey Day 2022, Norwood said serving in practical, hands-on community ministries “has always been a part of my understanding of faith — that we serve those who are underserved, those who are in need.”
“That’s what Jesus did, and I think that’s what He told us to do,” he reflected.
“The relationships are important to the community,” he said, “but that’s also really important to what we do and how we share the gospel and how we really feel that we’re sharing Christ” — one frozen turkey at a time.