As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said.
And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Matthew 14: 15-21 (NIV)
Food and religion have been intertwined ever since Adam took a bite of the forbidden apple (Genesis 3:6, NIV). From mandatory fish on Fridays during Lent for Roman Catholics to no meat for Hindus and Buddhists to Jews not eating pork (or having meat and dairy at the same meal), religious groups have used dietary restrictions as a means to reinforce faith. At the same time, though, church dinners have also traditionally been an effective way (particularly for Protestant denominations) to generate revenue and to provide a service to a local community.
One thing about researching the history of a congregation is that I find a variety of ways the church raised money to fund its financial obligations. Typically, people think that weekly offerings are sufficient to cover the church’s expenses, but that seldom is the case. During the colonial period, for instance, clergy often preached at multiple congregations unless they were fortunate enough to work in a town—and even then, they might serve more than one congregation, as the parishioners seldom contributed enough funds to support a minister’s family. Consequently, Zion’s used a variety of methods to raise funds to pay the minister’s salary (and the choir director, organist, etc.), meet its charitable obligations, pay for utilities, etc. When I was a member while in graduate school, one of the big fundraisers was the rummage sale, during which the church in a sense performed a mission to financially distressed residents of Reading by selling inexpensive used (but in good shape) clothing. Probably the best known way that the church raised funds, however, was through food sales, such as the soup sales that often accompanied the rummage sale. During the 1940s, however, these fundraisers had an entirely different purpose.
The United States entered the Second World War on December 8, 1941, following the Japanese attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor. That same day, Germany declared war on the United States, which meant that the U.S. fought a war on two fronts for the next several years. Almost immediately, men and women of Zion volunteered to serve in the armed forces, continuing to do so until the end of the conflict. One hundred twenty-seven men and women from Zion’s served in the Army, Navy, and Marines during the war, with three of them making the ultimate sacrifice. Throughout the conflict, Reverend Harry S. Kehm corresponded with the soldiers and sailors, providing a report to the Consistory each month with a cumulative total of letters sent and received. Sending these letters cost money, as did the Christmas packages sent to the troops each December. In addition, for the duration of the war church members in the service of our country did not have to pay “church dues” (in other words, they would remain on the rolls as church members even though they did not contribute financially to Zion’s operations).
To raise money for these expenses, in 1942 the Consistory authorized holding a peach festival that August “to help defray the expense of the testaments sent out to the members of the church who are in the armed forces of our country.” The peach festival joined the Annual Roast Beef Dinner (held by the Consistory each fall) and occasional Ham and Egg suppers in the spring as food-based fund raisers for Zion’s during the early 1940s. Consistory minutes also reveal the menus for these dinners; the 1942 Roast Beef Supper, for instance, included roast beef, mashed potatoes, stewed dried corn, canned peas, pepper cabbage, celery and carrots, bread and butter, and coffee, with ice cream and cakes available for sale. In February 1944, the Fastnacht Bake and Sale generated over $200 in profit.
Dinners also funded other activities. A Ham and Egg supper in April 1940 raised funds to pay down the church mortgage (which would be paid off by 1947), and the one in April 1945 contributed toward the Building Fund. Of course, by April 1945 the war was winding down, but Zion’s still held its peach festival that August. My mother (whose only brother enlisted in the Navy in September 1943 and was stationed in Japan) still remembers the Peach Festival held on Tuesday, April 14, 1945, as one accompanied by church bells ringing and Reading citizens shouting in the streets—because it was held on V-J Day.