Mostly women and a few men crowd around the wood-panel tables in the prayer room at the University Church of Christ, chatting about their joys and troubles before Bible study begins. Everyone takes a scrap of orange paper with a number to mark who gets to leave first to cross the street and pick up their grocery bag. They eat a free lunch of coleslaw and sweet potatoes while they wait.
Today volunteers pack frozen ham, frozen blueberries, loaves of white bread and low fat fig cookies into brown paper bags. (Plastic bags go quickly, and the church always appreciates the gift if someone has a stash of extras tucked away in their kitchen cabinets.)
At the helm of the operation is Vernita Garriott, and her husband, Bob. Countless prayers will be sent out to the less fortunate this Thanksgiving, but Vernita and Bob will send out 200 bags of potatoes, greens, stuffing and desserts with the help of the Harvest Hands program.
“You want to see fun, try putting together 200 packages in two or three days,” Vernita said. “We want people to have something to take home for the holiday, so there’s something on the table.”
Vernita is legally blind, and Bob was born without his right arm. Together they sell pork skins and kettle corn out of a food truck, and use whatever profits are left over after their personal expenses to support the people at the church. Vernita has even been known to lend money to someone who needs new clothes or a few gallons of gas to go to a job interview.
“For a blind woman, she can see right through you,” said Doug Key, an elder and Facilities Director at the UCC. “She has great generosity, but she can usually tell when someone’s trying to pull the wool over her eyes.”
The Garriotts have adopted nine children with disabilities, and taken many more into their home as foster parents. They understand that unforeseen circumstances can put a family in a situation where they need to ask for help: a broken axel on the food truck almost put them out of business in October.
“It’s things that are out of your control,” Vernita said. “You could be living paycheck to paycheck, but what if your car breaks down? What if you get some kind of sickness? What if, God forbid, your husband dies and there’s no money coming in?”
For others, hard times are a pit they can’t seem to escape. Mary Ann Bauer, a resident of Duncanville, Ala. who makes her way to Harvest Hands for every Bible study, survived an abusive marriage, a childhood full of neglect, and a long battle with depression that she said she won by allying herself with God.
“When I wasn’t going to church, things got real bad inside my brain,” Bauer said. “A lot of days I felt suicidal. When you feel that way, like there’s no point in living, you need a bright light. A real bright light.”
Bauer’s relationships with her family are unsteady and lead to disappointment, but she says that her friendship with Hattie Presley is one of the strongest forces in her life.
“I’ve always wanted a Christian home and a Christian family and togetherness,” Bauer said. “I feel some of that warmth when I get out there and see everybody at church.”
Presley is a new grandmother who grew up in Hale County and attended Stillman College in 1967. She is something like a right-hand woman for Vernita when it comes to Harvest Hands, and she says she is always amazed by the strength of faith she sees in the women who gather for Bible study.
“If you ask everyone where they go to church on Sunday, you could get as many different answers as there are people,” Presley said. “But it’s eye-opening the way these people really seek God.”
The Thanksgiving celebration in 2013 was a huge success, Presley said.
“We had a wonderful meal,” Presley said. “A lot of the ladies are widows, some have been single all their lives, and they’re home alone.”
To once again send Thanksgiving meals to the homes of Tuscaloosans in need, the church needs donations which can be dropped off at 1200 Julia Tutwiler Dr. Contact: 205-553-3001 or email info@universitycofc.org.

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