>The Best Christmas Dinner Ever

>“Kathy” (not her real name) has two college degrees, seven years of service as a photographer with the United States Navy and a second career as a teacher for the Memphis City Schools. She just turned 60, and quit teaching last year due to being in an overwhelmingly difficult work environment. Now she lives in her car.

My husband and I ate Christmas dinner with Kathy today at Brother Juniper’s Restaurant near the University of Memphis. Owners (and friends) Jonathan and Pauline Koplin (and their “kids,” Sarah and Patrick) have been serving this (free) meal on Christmas Day for eleven years now. My husband and oldest son, Jonathan, and I were supposed to have Christmas dinner with friends from St. John Orthodox Church today, but they had to postpone due to illness. We saw the Koplins at St. John’s Christmas Liturgy and feast last night, and Pauline asked my husband if he had time to stop by their restaurant around 10:45 this morning for him to bless the food before they began serving. Well, we ended up staying for two and a half hours, where our son, Jonathan, served in the food line and Father Basil and I visited with a number of other guests. (That’s Jonathan, right, with Patrick Koplin, left.)

There were quite a few veterans there, and some of them, like Kathy, didn’t know how to get the services they need from the VA until Father Basil (who is also Chief of Preventive Medicine at the VA in Memphis) shared some information with them today. He plans to get together with Kathy next week to help her get connected with the right folks at Veterans Affairs. It was obvious that we were supposed to be there today, for so many reasons.

I loved meeting Tony (his real name) who is an artist who teaches classes at Jacob’s Ladder. Here’s Tony with this amazing painting. He uses fabric paint. He has recently been asked to paint legendary Memphis soul musician J. Blackfoot, who died on November 30. The painting will hang in the Stax Museum here in Memphis.

Christmas Dinner at Brother Junipers’ isn’t your usual “feed the homeless” affair. It brings together neighbors, restaurant regulars, and those in need with “accidental tourists” like the family who was driving through Memphis and Googled restaurants and just happened to choose Brother Juniper’s for their Christmas meal. They had no idea until they arrived that the meal was free!

(That’s Pauline with me, above.)

The table of folks next to us broke out in spontaneous song at one point, and we all joined them with a few Christmas carols.

Did I mention how good the food was? Turkey, dressing, fresh sautéed green beans, sweet potato casserole, lasagna, deserts, and even kahlua and Baileys for the coffee! The Koplins did some of the cooking, and sponsors and volunteers contributed the rest. As we visited with some of the couple of hundred guests who came and went from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. today, I found myself often on the brink of tears, and so thankful for this special treat that we were given today. As “Santa Clause” gave out candy canes, some of the children were equally as interested in the large cross that hung around my husband’s neck. And when someone told Tony that I was an artist and he asked what I paint, I only had to point to one of the icons hanging on the wall near the restaurant’s kitchen door.

Yes, this will be a Christmas dinner to remember, and one I hope we can participate in again. Thanks, Jonathan, Pauline, Sarah, Patrick, sponsors, volunteers and guests for THE BEST CHRISTMAS DINNER EVER!

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