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Longtime Rapid City church member fills many needs

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Sloppy joes are Phyllis Harper’s way of showing God’s love.

For 32 years, she has led a team of volunteers from Bethel Assembly of God Church who prepares and serves dinner once a month at Cornerstone Rescue Mission. This week, Harper is retiring from her longtime volunteer role.

Harper, 88, is known in her family and church for her cooking. Her brownies and other recipes are in the Bethel church cookbook, and her talents have been an ideal fit for the Cornerstone meal preparation ministry.

“The church needed somebody to take it on and so I did. I ended up doing it for 32 years.” Harper said, laughing. “I had really good help.”

Harper calls and organizes dozens of volunteers who donate hamburger, or contribute salad, canned vegetables, fruit, rolls, and pans of homemade brownies, cake or bar cookies. Harper and four or five volunteers transport the food to Cornerstone. There, they prepare the sloppy joes using 30 pounds of hamburger, three bags of frozen chopped onions, two bottles of ketchup, two jars of salsa, a dozen packets of seasoning mix and cans of tomato sauce, the Rapid City Journal reported.

Six volunteers then dish up and serve dinner. “They really like our sloppy joes,” Harper said. “I know we’re a blessing to the people that come through the line that need the food, and we always have fun fixing the food.”

Harper and her team feed between 100 and 175 people each month, said Deb Berg, volunteer coordinator at Cornerstone Rescue Mission.

“I wish I had a thousand Phyllises,” Berg said. “It’s a big undertaking to cook the food for that many people and serve it. It’s just amazing how long Phyllis has stuck with us. How do you even thank somebody for that?”

“Phyllis is not a quitter,” said Carol Gossard, Harper’s sister. “We inherited that from our parents. Our mother taught Sunday school until she was about 84. That’s the way our folks were. If they were in it for God, they were in it. Phyllis gives it her whole heart.”

Harper has been an integral part of Bethel Assembly of God Church for much of her life. Her parents were charter members of the church, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Rev. Earl Harper was the first pastor from 1949 to 1969. Phyllis married Jack Harper, the pastor’s son, in 1952. The couple raised three sons and were involved at Bethel Assembly of God when their family wasn’t stationed elsewhere during his Air Force career. Jack passed away in 2002.

Harper taught Sunday school and the Missionettes group for school-aged girls for many years and sang in Bethel’s choir. Currently, in addition to the Cornerstone meal preparation, Harper visits people who are in poor health, and provides rides to doctor’s appointments and church.

“She loves the interaction of serving the people,” said Susan Walter, who was Bethel’s church secretary for 27 years. “She is a cornerstone at the church.”

Harper is stepping down from the meal preparation ministry now that the church has found another volunteer, Angie Langstaff, to run it.

“I’m very thankful that I’ve had the good health to do it this long,” Harper said, adding that she might still volunteer to make a dessert for the Cornerstone meal simply because she enjoys baking.

Harper is looking forward to becoming more active in a women’s prayer group and spending time with her three sons, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

“They just don’t make them like Phyllis anymore,” Berg said. “Everything she’s done, everything Bethel Assembly has done — that’s a lot of meals and they’ve fed a lot of people. ‘Thank you’ never feels like it’s enough.”

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