Hundreds of Chattanoogans gathered around a 240-foot-long table stretching down M.L. King Boulevard on Monday for a community-wide Thanksgiving potluck. Hosted by local nonprofit Causeway, the event formerly known as One Table is now called Gratefull Chattanooga.
For two hours, business people on their lunch breaks, young professionals, school children and members of Chattanooga's homeless community gathered side-by-side to break bread and share a meal together.
These are the faces of some of those who were at the table.
Barry Dent has lived on the streets for more than eight years.
Originally from Soddy-Daisy, he is a recovering addict and alcoholic. He's also had some mental health issues, he explains. He has a camp on the outskirts of downtown and visits the Chattanooga Community Kitchen for showers and meals.
Dent sits at the head of the table in the middle of the street, enjoying traditional Thanksgiving dishes like turkey and several casseroles, under a canopy of yellow and orange leaves.
"I'm homeless," Dent says. "But most days are great."
Then Dent smiles, "God provides."
Nazym Abibukirova has never celebrated Thanksgiving.
She is 16 years old and living with a host family, thousands of miles away from her own family in Kazakhstan. Abibukirova is an exchange student and she and two dozen of her Ivy Academy classmates donned plastic gloves and rolled up their sleeves Monday, volunteering to help serve those who attended the community potluck.
"My teachers told me about the event," she says. "They said it would be very great to serve people and they would be very pleased. I know Thanksgiving is a big family event and people gather together to share food and spend time together."
Among the business professionals, homeless people, transients, neighbors walking dogs and volunteers in aprons stood about 50 little children. Calie Carmichael, Serenity Mumen and their classmates walked with their teachers from Brown Academy to eat lunch together.
"It's a big picnic," their classmate, Tasonjia, screams once the girls are sitting on blankets spread out in the sun, under the trees that line the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Their teachers brought them here — to enjoy the sunshine, meet their neighbors and eat lunch with people they wouldn't normally spend time with.
Most of their plates are filled with turkey, a small amount of gravy, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. Calie has some kale salad on her plate, though.
"Salad is good," Calie giggles.
"Ew, gross!" her classmate yells. "I like McDonald's."
Samuel Brinson leans over and places a scrap of roasted sweet potato on the sidewalk along King Boulevard.
"Leave it, leave it" he repeats, staring at his 5-month-old chocolate-colored puppy, Bear. The dog is barely moving, it's hazel eyes fixed on the scrap.
"No, leave it " Brinson continues. "See how well he's trained."
Then he moves his hand away. "OK, get it Bear!" Brinson says and the dog lunges forward, gobbling up the treat.
Brinson, who has lived in Chattanooga on and off his whole life, has had Bear since he was a puppy.
"He's great protection at night," he explains of his companion. Brinson is "between housing right now," he explains. Which brought him to the community potluck where he ran into his case manager, who he said checks in on him from time to time.
"She's trying to help me," Brinson says. "Today, me and my dog are just enjoying a nice day and a good meal."
Nick Pollard scoops kale salad with cheese and raisins onto the plates of passerby.
In his blue suit, the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football player and current wealth advisor at UBS could look out of place in a serving line.
"Kale yeah!" he exclaims when someone asks for more.
He is on his lunch break, volunteering with a group of other young UTC alumni for the second year in a row at the potluck.
"We are trying to connect young alumni to the community," Pollard says.
The potluck, formerly known as One Table, has been replicated in at least three other communities since Causeway, a local nonprofit, first launched it in 2014 in Chattanooga.
"It's really neat to have this in [other] cities such as Nashville," Pollard says. "Just the fact that it brings so many local people together."
Barbara Braggs moved to Chattanooga almost exactly a year ago — Nov. 21, 2017. She was a nurse for more than 45 years, but finally she retired.
"When my body wouldn't let me do it and I wasn't effective anymore," Braggs says.
She moved into Patton Towers, where a neighbor told her about the potluck. She donned a red hat and decided to come down to the gathering.
"I think it is a great way to meet your neighbors," she says.
The neighbor who encouraged Braggs to come, Lebron Smith, pipes in.
"It's the best thing that's ever happened to Chattanooga," he says.
Before she leaves, Braggs gets back in line for another plate — one she planned to bring home to one of her neighbors who couldn't make it out to the event.
Dan Baker is a "seriously retired" UTC professor of education administration. But in his retirement, one of his friends at First-Centenary United Methodist didn't want him to get bored. She encouraged him to look into a group doing outreach with the homeless folks in town.
That's how Bill Holland got "forced" onto him, Baker jokes.
Holland counters him: "I didn't have a choice, I got stuck with him."
Baker has known Holland for more than eight years. Baker drives Holland to doctor appointments and helps him travel in his wheelchair. He's known Holland since he was on the streets, but now Holland lives under a roof again.
"I don't think people really understand how industrious and honest homeless people are," Baker says. "People also don't understand how really close lower, middle-class people are to being on the streets. If you want to fix the homeless problem, it isn't about providing tiny homes it's the whole system."
Bill Holland eats and talks at the same time. He's that excited.
In his Harley Davidson tank top, he scarfs up his meal but welcomes a conversation.
When asked, Holland proudly exclaims he is from Soddy-Daisy, not Chattanooga. That's a point of pride around here.
Holland sleeps under a roof now, but eight years ago, he was homeless. That's when he met Dan Baker at church.
"He's my chauffeur," he laughs, pointing at Baker with his elbow between bites.
He talks about growing up in Soddy-Daisy, laughs and jokes. When he's finished eating, he dons a black newsboy-style cap and aviator sunglasses.
"I'm gonna go over there," he tells Baker and wheels himself toward a choir performing in front of a piano at one end of the community table. A few minutes later, he wheels his chair back.
"See," Baker laughs. "He doesn't have any friends, he always comes back to me."
Will Lauderback is a pastor at First-Centenary United Methodist. He sits beside some of his congregation, volunteers, homeless folks and his wife under the Gratefull Chattanooga sign.
Lauderback is here to support a member of his congregation — Abby Garrison, the executive director of Causeway, the nonprofit that launched the communitywide potluck.
The pastor is here to break bread and "have a meal with other people in the community."
"We need more opportunities like this, opportunities to gather around the table and bring each other together," he says.
Janice Bradley sits patiently in her floral housecoat, relaxed and waiting.
She has eaten her fill and was enjoying the sunshine. She is waiting because her niece is on her way, because she is going to drop her off at her home in Patton Towers, because her legs hurt.
Bradley nods her chin approvingly when asked if she is from Chattanooga. "Born and raised," she says proudly.
She has four kids, 19 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, she will tell you, straightening her hair with her long fingers, the nails painted a simmering gold.
Chattanooga has changed drastically in Bradley's lifetime. "Upgraded, oh it's upgraded," she says.
Of the meal, Bradley calls it an outpouring.
"An outpouring of blessings."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.