Congregations engage in friendly competition to feed the hungry.
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First United Methodist Church has it, but Mount Tabor Lutheran Church wants it back. Bad.
No sins will be committed (quite the opposite, in fact), but these protestant churches and others across the Salt Lake Valley are plotting strategies in hopes of winning the coveted Golden Celery trophy by gathering the most nonperishable food per parishioner during July for Crossroads Urban Center.
"We are fighting to get it back this year," said Brenda Wardle, secretary at Mount Tabor, which captured top honors in 2008 by collecting 1,907 pounds of goods to match the centennial anniversary of the church's founding. What made the accomplishment even sweeter? Mount Tabor has a tiny congregation that averages just 70 people during the summer months and often even fewer during July.
A Crossroads board member suggested the competition four years ago to fill the gap in contributions that occurs when "everybody is on vacation, school is out and the Boy Scouts don't meet," said Linda Hilton, the center's community outreach coordinator. The challenge runs July 1-31, and weekly amounts collected are a well-kept secret until totals are announced.
"July is the month when we don't get much in the way of food donations and yet our need continues the same as any other month," Hilton said. "A competition was started as a way to bring more awareness and a fun way to collect more food for us."
The trophy is made of two No. 10 golden-colored cans of dehydrated celery that Hilton held onto because they were "so ridiculously funny."
"You're going to waste a gallon of water in an emergency to rehydrate the celery?" Hilton said. "No, you're going to drink the water."
Adds the Rev. Eun-sang Lee, of First United Methodist, which won the trophy the past two years: "You've got to see it. It is a wonderful trophy. We take pride in it."
Crossroads is one of Utah's busiest food pantries. It served 18,801 households in 2010 with three-day emergency boxes of food staples. Clients may visit its pantry up to six times a year.
Eight to 10 churches typically participate in the Golden Celery Challenge, which last year netted about 8,000 pounds of food for Crossroads.
"This year it will be more," Hilton predicted.
Christ United Methodist brought in nearly 2,000 pounds in 2010 but, with a congregation of nearly 1,000 members, it wasn't enough to bump First United out of the top spot.
"I can't believe we've lost to small churches so many years in a row," Christ United Pastor Marti Zimmerman said. "It is the smaller churches that seem to do better with this."
Added parishioner Sheryl Scott: "We didn't win, but we're trying."
First United draws about 120 people on Sundays, and "many people at our church are not rich, not well-to-do," Lee said. "Somehow, there is a spirit that says, 'Let's do it.' "
Most of the churches collected food for Crossroads throughout the year but increase that effort during the mega-food-drive challenge. Mount Tabor, for instance, doubles its collection to about 120 pounds per week.
"It's a fun competition," Wardle said, "but basically [people] keep in mind that whatever they bring in is helping others."
That's especially important this year as the economy continues to struggle, leaving many Utahns out of work or underemployed.
"The real winners are those people who are less fortunate in the community that we are able to help," Scott said. "I always try to let people know we go on vacation, but hunger doesn't, the need doesn't go away."
About the Golden Celery Challenge
This is the fourth year that Salt Lake Valley churches have participated in a good-natured competition to benefit Crossroads Urban Center. The amount of food collected is divided by congregation size during the month of July, ensuring each church, no matter it's size, has an equal shot at capturing the Golden Celery trophy.