By LINDA M. LINONIS
Homemade gifts come from the heart and hands. That’s true with John and Ruth Bartholomew, who bake about 400 loaves of bread between Thanksgiving and Christmas to give away.
The couple has baked bread during the holiday season since the 1960s. It’s been a ministry within a ministry. John, an ordained minister, gave his last sermon April 1 at Zion Hill Church of the Brethren in Columbiana. He had served there from October 1995 to March 31 of this year and previously from 1969 to 1983. Ruth has served along with her husband, as church secretary and pianist at various churches.
“At first, we gave bread to the elderly and widowed,” Ruth said of the early days in their ministry. Over the decades, the bread project just grew. Pastor John is 80 and his wife, 81.
The couple makes white and wheat varieties. The shapes are defined by the bread pans, while the color depends on when Ruth takes them out of the oven. “The loaves are like babies ... all colors, shapes and sizes,” she said.
With each loaf, they include a note with a wish for a “blessed Christmas” and a Scripture passage from John 6:35 about Jesus, which reads in part, “I am the bread of life.”
They met at a Christmas program in 1950 at Zion Hill Church of the Brethren and were married Dec. 9, 1951. “She sang ‘Away in the Manger’ and I knew I had to meet the redhead,” Pastor John said. “I made tracks to Ruth, and it’s been wonderful ever since,”
The now white-haired couple recently celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary.
During the couple’s active ministry of 49 years, they have baked thousands of loaves of bread. Ruth said she uses a recipe from a well-worn Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that they received as a wedding gift.
They bake a few times a week, they said. Each process starts with making the dough in a big kettle, Ruth said. “I work it ... kneading it about 10 minutes. It raises twice. By getting my fingers into it, I know when the dough is just right.”
“I punch it down and beat it up,” Pastor John said, adding it’s exercise.
Each batch makes about 15 loaves; Ruth bakes from five to six pans at a time. The loaves cool on racks, then they package them in plastic and slide them into brown paper bags with the notes. Then they deliver the loaves to a variety of people and places, including four banks, two hardware stores, a drugstore, medical offices and post office. Recipients are delighted, they said.
We just enjoy doing this,” Ruth said.
“We see the most beautiful smiles,” Pastor John added. “It’s a pleasure for us.”
One recipient told the couple he carries the note from his bread in his wallet “as good luck.”
The couple, who see the bread-baking as a ministry, said they have been blessed. “The Lord has been good to us,” Pastor John said. “So we want to share.”
The Bartholomews said there’s a message in their project that promotes the adage “It’s better to give than receive.”
“We hope we’re showing people about the joy of giving,” Ruth said.
Pastor John added, “I’m thankful for my ministry. God equipped me.”
They share their talents through their ministry, and hope others might do the same. The couple agreed the experience is rewarding.
Their giving spirit isn’t confined to Christmas. In the summer, they give away gladiolus flowers. They also regularly visit five area nursing homes.
During a recent family gathering, Ruth said she gave out 30 loaves of bread. They have five children, the Rev. Tim Bartholomew, who has pastored a Free Lutheran church, Kalispell, Mont., since 1994; Becky Vignon of Washingtonville, who sings with God’s Quad, a Gospel quartet; Jack Bartholomew of Columbus, who has a music ministry; the Rev. Phil Bartholomew, who started Second Shift Community Fellowship and preaches at East Palestine Presbyterian Church; and the Rev. Paul Bartholomew, pastor at Mohican Church of the Brethren in West Salem. They have 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.