BY DEBBIE PAGE
About 1,000 people signed up to share a delicious meal at the United Way of Iredell County’s Longest Table event at the Statesville High School football stadium on Tuesday night. The event was made possible by generous sponsors and over 200 volunteers from a variety of businesses and agencies who set up tables and chairs, cooked and served the guests.
WHAT IS THE LONGEST TABLE?
The United Way, which organized this event in 2018 and 2019, brought back this important community gathering, after a three-year COVID interruption, to promote community unity.
The basic philosophy of the Longest Table rests on three beliefs:
Food is Love. For most people food is equated with love, and there is no better setting or time to open individuals up for a new conversation than when they are enjoying a good meal.
Neighbors of all income levels, backgrounds, and beliefs will have a common table to foster new friendships in Iredell County.
Building the basic introduction to new individuals can add to everyone’s confidence and ability to reach out to one another and bridge gaps in future community planning decisions.
United Way Executive Director Brett Eckerman said the event was blessed with over 1,100 pre-registered for the meal, with a limited number of walk-up seats available.
“The real work of the event is the interactions with table participants, under the guidance of the table captains,” he explained.
Eckerman was also excited about the paper chain activity that concluded the event. Each participant was asked to identify one thing they will commit to bring to the community in the next year.
Each table made a chain, then each table’s chain was be linked to the other tables’ chains to create adisplay of what the community is pledging to make happen in Statesville.
Eckerman expressed gratitude to the multitude of volunteers and sponsors who committed to the event, especially Cheney Brothers, which donated much of the food, G4G who cooked it, and the Waffle Chick food truck that provided chicken tenders and fries for the children.
“It’s an amazing display of community. Our motto this year is stronger together, and this is exactly what our community is,” he said.
Eckerman also revealed that a Longest Table event is in the planning stages for October in the Mooresville area.
Iredell-Statesville Schools Superintendent Jeff James, who served as site host, embraced the event as part of the district’s outreach, which has resulted in 160 partnerships between schools and community entities.
“We can do much more for kids working together than independently. The various partners all have something to add to the mix to help our kids, and as we look around in society today, it’s even more important than it has been before.
“Kids need to be plugged in. We’ve put a lot of mental health supports in for our kids. The pandemic has been rough for our kids — they’re social creatures as we are, and trying to get back into the regular scheme of things has been a struggle for all of us.”
“Events like this help bring the community together, which can only benefit our kids. If we don’t pour something positive into them, then we are going to reap the consequences. You cannot go wrong supporting the future of our community.”
Iredell County Board of Commissioners Chair Melissa Neador welcomed the opportunity to serve at the event and to connect and talk with friends both old and new. “I get to hear what’s going on in people’s minds and hearts and in their communities,” she said.
“It warms my heart to see this many people come together. It shows that even when people do not always get along, we can still come together, share a meal, share our thoughts, and do it as a community, not behind a key board, but face-to-face to build relationships and understanding.”
FOCUS ON UNITY
After guests found their assigned tables, which ringed the entire stadium track, Shannon Viera, president of the Statesville Chamber of Commerce and a United Way Board member, welcomed the crowd.
“Tonight is all about sharing — sharing a meal, sharing a table, sharing a conversation, and sharing your commitment to making this community stronger together.”
Community spiritual leaders next offered prayers for the community. Congregation Emanuel President Beverly Maurice offered prayers of peace and unity and read the poem, “No Religion is an Island.” Clark’s Chapel Baptist Church Pastor Dietrich Danner offered prayers for schools, community leaders, United Way partners, and community volunteers.
Iredell Memorial Chaplain Allison Simmons said prayers for community spiritual leaders and houses of worship and first responders who serve their neighbors at the risk of their lives each day.
First Baptist Church Pastor Nelson Granade offered prayers for those gathered around the tables that evening and for those disenfranchised from society, who live in poverty, and lack basic human needs.
Reverend Jorge Ruiz, who leads a Spanish-speaking congregation, prayed for unity, community connection, and the country in both English and Spanish
To bless the food, Maurice said a prayer line in Hebrew, followed by Danner in English.
Mayor Costi Kutteh expressed his appreciation to first responders and city employees who responded to the massive fire at the city square one month ago. He also asked the crowd to “share the Statesville spirit” around the tables as they make new friends and enjoy fellowship.
The Statesville High School JROTC presented the colors, followed by a soaring performance of the National Anthem by Miss Statesville Taylor Loyd.
Eckerman thanked the many sponsors who made the free event possible, including Lead Sponsor Cheney Brothers, Inc. (Statesville); Gold Sponsors Iredell-Statesville Schools and Kewaunee Scientific; Silver Sponsors G4G Ministries Inc., Goodwill Industries, Piedmont HealthCare, and Waffle Chick; and Bronze Sponsors City of Statesville, Doosan Bobcat, First Citizens Bank (Statesville), Iredell Health System, and Mitchell Community College.
Media partners included Iredell Free News and WAME Radio – Real Country 92.9.
Cheney Brothers (Statesville) President Rick Stapleton lauded the “tremendous, first-class, awesome community we have. We truly have created the longest table tonight because it’s one large circle that has no start and has no end. It’s just a beautiful sight to see.”
“I’ve heard it said that food equals love, so take some time today to get to know your neighbors that are sitting at your table that you have never met. Maybe you’ll make a life-long friend.”
“Jesus instructed us to love our neighbor as ourselves. We have a great opportunity to model that tonight,” said Stapleton.
Other speakers sharing thoughts included Amari Grady, Tevin Carr, Miss Iredell County Hannah Harvey, and Andrea Sherrill.