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Alabamians, Episcopalians battle it out over gumbo

By Michelle Hiskey

Posted May 2, 2019

Episcopal News Service


Toni North and the Birmingham Soul Sisters won the 2018 Chef’s Choice Seafood Award at the 2018 Gumbo Gala, the biggest Episcopal event in Alabama. Photo: Sara Walker

[Episcopal News Service] After Hurricane Katrina disrupted people’s lives across the Gulf Coast, inland cities welcomed the displaced and strangers offered shelter and services. For some evacuees to Birmingham, Alabama, the hospitality became permanent, and the influx led to a hugely successful Episcopal fundraising event celebrating the distinctive comfort food called gumbo.


At least 3,000 partiers are expected May 4 for the Gumbo Gala, now in its 14th year as the largest Episcopal event in Alabama. The Gumbo Gala annually raises $100,000 for Episcopal Place, which provides 141 units of affordable housing and independent living in Birmingham for seniors and adults with disabilities.


According to Episcopal Place’s history, a “mustard seed” started all this in the 1970s when an elderly Episcopalian wrote to then-Bishop Furman Stough about no longer being able to live by herself and having no place to go. The gumbo competition that started in the wake of Katrina today enables Episcopal Place to care for older adults with fixed or limited incomes who cannot afford rising apartment rents or maintain a home.


The Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles vied for the Most Divine Gumbo trophy and the Spirit Award at the 2018 Gumbo Gala.


The Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles vied for the Most Divine Gumbo trophy and the Spirit Award at the 2018 Gumbo Gala. Photo: Sara Walker

Get the dog!

In August 2005 as Hurricane Katrina approached the Mississippi coast, Lynnes Thompson told his wife Linda, “Get the dog! We’re gone.” The storm destroyed their home as the couple headed to family in Birmingham, 350 miles northeast of New Orleans.


Because Linda Thompson has chronic health issues, the couple needed somewhere stable near medical facilities, like Episcopal Place. Within a month, they and their dog moved in, as did three other couples from Katrina’s path.


“For these survivors, initially it was about shelter and food. Then it was dealing with emotional and mental health issues,” recalled Episcopal Place social worker Shannon Atchenson. “One couple had lost a dog. There was some depression and anxiety. We wanted to give residents a sense of belonging because, when you’ve lost your home, that’s important.”


Residents don’t have to pay for supportive services like transportation, food delivery and pet care; those are covered by donations to the Episcopal Church Foundation and volunteers. With need rising in the hurricane aftermath, Episcopal Place knew “we weren’t going to get support from the government for the Katrina people or for anyone,” Atchenson said.

Meanwhile, as a way of settling in, Lynnes Thompson, a Baptist, began a nondenominational Bible study at Episcopal Place.


“Episcopal Place has done more than their part for all of us,” said Lynnes Thompson, now 78. “It’s quite expensive to operate a place like this that’s so good.”


Food prep at the 2018 Gumbo Gala, the biggest Episcopal event in Alabama.


Food prep at the 2018 Gumbo Gala, the biggest Episcopal event in Alabama. Photo: Sara Walker

Rising water, changing direction

A year before Katrina, Hurricane Ivan had flooded Episcopal Place. Staff sent out an SOS, and Amanda Ward, Episcopal Place’s activities and volunteer coordinator, recruited her classmate Matt Ennis to help. The power was out at his corporate job, so he didn’t mind wet vacuuming the flood water at Episcopal Place.


Volunteering that day made him realize that he wanted to work closer with people in need. T