Before 12/12/12, I had problems. Business was slow, payment even slower. I was feeling a bit isolated working out of my home. A Forest Park couple, who belong to our lunch group, the Homeys, invited me to help out at a food pantry in Lawndale. I seized the opportunity to escape the doldrums.

When I pulled up to the Harmony Community Baptist Church and saw hundreds standing in line in the cold, I realized I didn’t have any problems. Inside the church basement, about 40 volunteers were sitting in a circle. They introduced themselves and added blessings they were thankful for: like God waking them up that morning.

The male half of the Forest Park couple led a scripture lesson from Isaiah. During the season of Advent, he said, we’re looking forward to being freed from bondage: be it spiritual, physical or financial. The informal service ended with two volunteers singing a duet of “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …).

Food stations ringed the basement. Tables stocked with rotisserie chickens, canned foods, salads, fruits and vegetables. Behind the tables, were shelves filled with boxes of food. It was hard for me to believe but these shelves would be emptied by the crowd waiting to come in.

I was assigned to the bread table. It had every variety: wheat, white and raisin bread. It seemed especially significant to give out bread, because we had just finished reciting the Lord’s Prayer. My partners were a woman from a nursing home and a no-nonsense woman in red, who knew how to keep the line moving.

From the time the doors opened, the operation was a model of orderliness. The 400 half-frozen souls registered and moved through the stations to fill up their bags. Volunteers broke up bottlenecks and offered to help recipients carry their bags. Some of the people in line seemed like street people, but most appeared to be from normal walks of life.

At our table, we asked each person what kind of bread they wanted. Wheat was the most common request and we quickly ran out. It was mind-boggling how many bags of bagels we went through during the next two hours. The recipients were humble and grateful and wished us Merry Christmas.

Afterwards the volunteers enjoyed a communal lunch. I couldn’t stay, but helping people with real problems had lifted a huge weight from me. We can find this feeling right here in Forest Park.

Friday, Dec. 21, the Community Center needs volunteers to distribute its holiday baskets. The number of families receiving them has risen to 150. Drivers and helpers are needed to give out baskets, which include a ham, a box of food and a bag of toys. The operation begins at 10:30 a.m. You can call the Community Center or just show up.

There’s no feeling like it.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.