Guests at the annual Wild Game Dinner got a chance to taste bear stew and see the mounted bear that they ate at East Commerce Baptist Church on Saturday night.
There were 320 people at the dinner; 277 of whom were guests and not members of the church that makes no bones - bear bones or otherwise - that there's a religious purpose mixed with a culinary adventure like eating bear meat.
"It's great," says Mike Adams, the leader of the annual dinner organized by the church's Wild Game Ministry. "It's got a little stronger taste than beef. The texture of the meat is similar."
John Barron, one of the instructors at Spot Lowe Vocational Center, killed the bear and had it mounted, Adams said. The stuffed bear was where folks wanted to be photographed that night; an opportunity taken by MCHS wildlife management instructor Brent Johns took while holding a knife at the bear.
Kevin McGehee, the youth director at the church, started the dinner and has handed that ministry's leadership to Adams, but McGehee's reflection on this year's dinner had to include his commentary on a fowl for the feast and how he came to cook the bird.
"I cooked a Canada goose," he said. "It's the first time any of us remember having that. It was really good.
"We made a stir fry of it," McGehee continued. "It was shot by my son, Brett."
The 12-year-old boy's successful hunt was on a lake at Mooresville, the youth director said.
Another young hunter at the church Saturday was "the boy who got shot" in a hunting accident last year. "We got to give him a gift pack with a buck knife and several other outdoor things," McGehee said.
Samuel Crane visited East Commerce Baptist Church at lunchtime. The 13-year-old Lewisburg Middle School student suffered an accidental gunshot wound on Oct. 29 and, having heard his doctors discuss the injury, he decided to have his leg amputated so he'd have a greater opportunity for a normal life in spite of the injury.
Crane is now walking with a prosthesis and McGehee said he and other hunters in the ministry were hopeful for the boy and happy to share their sport and faith with him.
McGehee's brother, Tim, delivered the after-dinner speech in the sanctuary. The Rev. Tim McGehee pastors Grace Baptist Church in Tullahoma. His humorous presentation had a more significant side as a dozen men "accepted Christ, and nine recommitted" their lives, Adams said.
"It is the ultimate goal of the ministry," Adams said. "But we have fun."
That fun lasted most of the day as cooking started at 5:30 a.m. and cleanup concluded at 11:30 p.m.
"Church members do all the work," he said, noting 43 church members participated.
So, the annual Wild Game Dinner has become a substantive event with tables set up under a tent. ECBC member Steve Crain provides the tent through a "special deal," Adams said.
The Rev. James Hickey spoke of the annual event Monday while packing his personal things in his office. Hickey's retiring and his last sermon as pastor is Sunday.
"There are many people in the community who expect it and are invited" to the dinner, he said. "The men are very expectant of something happening, and Tim gave an evangelistic message and the people can fill out a form to respond."
As for the bear stew, Hickey said, "Last year they had bear steak. Some people will try everything" that's spread out on the table for the dinner line in the church.
"This is not the only thing they do," he continued. "It's become a ministry but it's also grown into a Sunday School class."
The classroom has been decorated with a wildlife theme.
"Some of the men who come to the dinner start coming to the class," Hickey said. "And then they have fishing tournaments and quail hunts and dove hunts.
"It's about a quarterly event that they have each year, and they invite some of the public to that," he said. "The men of the church support it financially. They have an offering, but of course that never covers it all" so the men cover the difference.
Those events include a turkey shoot in March, a sighting before bow season, a skeet shoot to prepare for dove season and, of course, the dinner.
Adams invites interested hunters to call him at 93-637-9299 or the church at 359-1027.
He and Hickey also pointed to the Wild Game Diner group's participation in a separate program. Hunters for the Hungry makes extra venison and other game meat available to people in need.