New congregation keeps New London Christmas brunch alive

New London — Shawn Cornele had not had grits in a while.

Since he moved out of North Carolina in the 1970s, the southern staple hasn’t often been on the menu. “It’s been probably 20 years,” Cornele said Sunday, as he scanned the basement of the former First Congregational Church building on Union Street on Sunday morning, looking for a seat. “But I love grits.”

Sunday was the first time the Engaging Heaven Church, which bought the towering stone building in 2014, has hosted the Christmas morning breakfast, complete with made-to-order omelets, bacon, coffee, hash browns and, yes, grits.

The Engaging Heaven congregation took over the New London Breakfasts program last year, offering free breakfasts five days a week to anyone who wants one. They have also kept the tradition of serving brunch on Christmas morning, and were ready Sunday, when more than 150 people showed up to eat and, if they wanted, pray.

Beloved Grace Carter, who has led the breakfast program since this spring, said when she started volunteering that she was inspired by Jesus, who she said “fed the multitudes physically so they would be in a position to receive what he served them spiritually.”

Sunday gave Carter the opportunity to celebrate that approach on the same day that Christians across the world were celebrating it with her. As dozens of volunteers rushed around a cramped kitchen and delivered omelet orders to the cooks, including New London Mayor Michael Passero, she raced to match the pace of people coming in for a seat at one of the tables.

“It’s all about relationships,” she said later, as the crowd started to thin and the volunteers took a break. “They just want to know that you care.”

Behind her, on a small stage at the front of the room, Engaging Heaven pastor Chad Seymour was preaching and offering a chance to pray. He had a hopeful message.

"2017 will not be like 2016 was," he said into the mic. "(It will be) a year of blessing, a year of change."

Dishon Morgan sat in front of a plate of eggs for several minutes, only digging in once he had hugged a couple of friends and chatted with other diners.

“It’s the people that’s good,” he said. “It’s not really the food, it’s the people. That’s what makes it work — it’s the people that care.”

Toward the end of the meal, Kent Sistare, a lifelong member of First Congregational who helped run the weekday breakfast program for many years, walked in.

He managed to stay under the radar for a few minutes, but as soon as Seymour took the stage, any chance at anonymity went out the window. Seymour sang Sistare’s praises for several minutes, and encouraged the former New London Breakfasts volunteer to come to the front of the room, where he got a round of applause.

Dressed in a Dallas Cowboys-themed apron and a Santa hat with leopard pattern trim, Carter gave Sistare a hug, then went back to making sure latecomers to the breakfast got fed.

“I’m taking the day off tomorrow,” she said.

But other volunteers said they would help make sure New London Breakfasts would be up and running the next day at 5 a.m., just like any other Monday.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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