On a sunny morning with a light breeze, hundreds of people flocked to First Christian Church in Garden City Saturday for the 19th Annual Navajo Taco Dinner.
For seven and a half hours — from lunch through dinner time — volunteers served up hundreds of helpings of the the traditional Navajo fry bread topped with a mixture of ground beef, pinto beans, spices, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese and hot sauce.
“This is a whole church event,” said church member Bridget Rhoades, who is in her ninth year of helping organize the event. “We’re talking hundreds of people volunteer for this event.”
The littlest volunteers — Rhoades said the youngest Saturday was 5 — help serve drinks. Middle schoolers help bus tables, and the older teenagers take out the trash.
“Every year, we have people say, 'What can we do to help?'” she said. “To me, this is church. Everyone’s sharing the love of Christ and serving one another.”
Gale Frank started the event back in 2000 because there was nothing like it in town. He learned how to make Navajo tacos from his two aunts, who were missionaries on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.
“That was 19 years ago,” he said. “It was very unique to this area because nobody was doing it.”
Local businesses and organizations donate money and items for the event. The City of Garden City provides trash cans, and USD 457 donates the use of cutters to cut parchment paper.
“There’s all facets of our community that’s involved,” Rhoades said. “There are a lot of community groups that are a part of this dinner, even though they are not here on the day of the dinner.”
Rhoades said the church covers the cost of whatever the community doesn’t donate.
“Absolutely every penny that is raised from this dinner leaves this church,” she said. “We keep absolutely nothing. It goes to the nonprofits in Garden City.”
According to Rhoades, last year the church served 1,600 people and raised $15,000, which was then given to approximately seven different organizations in Garden City. She doesn’t know which organizations will benefit this year. That is decided after the dinner is completed. In the past, the church has given to Mosaic, Habitat for Humanity, Emmaus house, Miles for Smiles and Family Crisis Services.
She said she's hopeful this year's event will raise $19,000.
“Each year, that is our goal, to have our dinner grow,” Rhoades said. “We feel that there’s a need for our church to have a servant’s heart, and part of that is helping the people in need in our community.”
To make enough Navajo tacos to feed 1,500 to 1,700, Rhoades said, it takes four cases of fresh tomatoes, 375 pounds of flour and 560 pounds of ground beef, along with several cases of lettuce, onions and cheese.
Besides the dough, which is made the week before and frozen, everything is prepared the day of the event.
“We were here at 5:45 this morning,” Rhoades said. “Everything is fresh.”
The Navajo fry bread is made of flour, dry milk, lard, salt and baking powder. It is made into a dough, which is formed into balls. It is then flattened out on a pizza press and fried with vegetable oil in 10-inch cast iron skillets. They cook 13 at a time.
“That’s why our line is so long,” Rhoades said about the fact the fry bread is cooked as guests are being served.
The famous taco isn't the only staple at the dinner. Members of the church and the community bake scores of pies for the event. This year, there were at least 10 different flavors, including lemon, peanut butter, chocolate, coconut and rhubarb.
Danny Hoff, 43, of Garden City, has been volunteering at the dinner for six years. He and his three children worked in an assembly line to prepare the dough balls to be fried.
“We’re pressing out the dough,” he said. “I’m on the quality control side over here making sure the dough balls come out consistent.”
Cassandra Parra, 16, of Garden City, was one of 25 students form the AVID class at Garden City High School to volunteer for the event. The class requires 15 volunteer service hours per student.
“It’s beneficial to a lot of other people, too, not just me,” Parra said of helping out. “It gets me out of my comfort zone and around a lot of people I’ve never met before.”
Tonya Bondurant, who teaches the AVID class, said the students learn networking and people skills.
“I think this is a great event because all the money goes to local charities,” she said. “They are helping their own community, which is great.”
Kim Bayer, of Garden City, said it was the first time she brought her family to the dinner.
“My mom’s a member of this church, and she invited us to have lunch here,” she said. “I’ve heard it's very, very good.”
Kandy Davis and her husband, C.L., drive from Holcomb every year to participate.
“We love it,” Kandy said. “It’s such a community thing. It’s delicious food, and we always have good company.”
C.L. said he enjoys the good food and fellowship.
“It’s been at least 10 years,” he said of how long they have been attending.
John Brewer, 56, of Garden City, came with his wife and two neighbors.
“It’s the first time I’ve had one,” he said of eating a Navajo taco. “It’s very, very good.”
Rhoades said the event involves the entire community.
“Our job here is to truly have a servant’s heart and to share everything we get with people in need," she said.