More than turkey: annual meal brings community together

Tommy McBrayer Jr. and Cynthia Wilson

“My first Thanksgiving dinner was in my party room in my apartment,” recalled Tommy McBrayer, Jr. His annual dinners have grown considerably since then.

By the third dinner, the gathering grew to event-size and the venue was changed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Minneapolis. He broadened the scope that year to add awards to give thanks to those in the community that continuously gave back. This year, the gathering takes place on Nov. 23 at Minneapolis Green Central’s gym.

For the past three years, McBrayer has been working on the pre-Thanksgiving dinners with Cynthia Wilson, park director at Minneapolis Green Central. She has been touched by how the event has blossomed and by how much McBrayer pours into serving the community at this gathering.

“Tommy has been doing an excellent job bringing the families and communities together as a whole,“ said Wilson. “He has touched a lot of people’s lives in a short period of time.”

But McBrayer didn’t always have a pretty story—it took losing for him to win. McBrayer said he never thought he had the potential to be great. He thought that somebody else should take the banner when it came to doing the “right” thing in community leadership.

He just listened and followed other people’s lead, thinking that somebody else could push the community forward. McBrayer bought into the thought that the only thing he could do was sell drugs.

“In 2010, I just got back from college,” he shared. “I was sleeping on somebody’s couch or sleeping on somebody’s floor because I wasn’t established yet. I started up selling marijuana to make a living. In May of that year, 2010, I got shot.”

Incredibly, the same Southside community that he loves so much, he once terrorized by selling drugs and getting involved in petty criminality. It seems that everything changes. Getting shot in the midst of illegal activity was a real wake up call. McBrayer said it caused him to turn his life around.

The pre-Thanksgiving dinner was not solely his idea, McBrayer acknowledged. Instead, it was inspired by V.J. Smith of Mad Dads, one of his closest mentors.

McBrayer holds onto advice Smith once gave him: “The key to community is to be truthful to yourself in understanding the most important thing—to serve others. Keep your record clean… make sure that what you do helps your family. Then you can be proud of your outcome, whatever you do.”

Now McBrayer, along with community partner Green Central, serves the community by bringing people together. Wilson said she supported the event when it was a 10-20 person gathering to last year’s attendance that topped 300 in attendance.

 “The dinner is more than a dinner but a gathering bringing a reunion of hope,” said Wilson.

Tommy’s 6th Annual Pre-Thanksgiving Dinner takes place on Nov. 23 from 5-8 pm at the Green Central gym, located at 3400 4th Ave. in South Minneapolis. This year’s event includes a bounce house, coloring contest, a drill team performance, turkey giveaways and more. The dinner is free but donations are welcomed.