Neil "Bigmista" Strawder Returns to Texas for a Good Cause

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Photos by Groovehouse
Rev. Chester J. Makowski, Vicar of St. Augustine and Neil "Bigmista" Strawder share a laugh in the church's kitchen.
"My momma told me the church was gonna have a celebrity barbecue," recalled Neil "Bigmista" Strawder as he stood heads and shoulders above everyone else in the St. Augustine Episcopal Church's sunny kitchen on Saturday afternoon.

"I said, 'Oh, yeah? Who?' And she said, 'You!'" Strawder roared with laughter.

"'I'm no celebrity!' I told her. And she said, 'Baby, you've been on TV and it wasn't COPS,'" he finished. Everyone in the kitchen was now laughing, clearly happy to welcome back their local boy done good.

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Strawder's smoked chicken with subtle jerk spices was the hit of the afternoon.
Strawder, now best known as the Long Beach, California pitmaster who impressed LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold enough to be included on Gold's list of 99 Essential LA Restaurants and as a contestant on TLC's BBQ Pitmasters, returned to his home on Galveston this weekend for a good cause and some good 'cue.

By 1 p.m., Strawder had already been serving barbecue for two hours, although his friends and family -- as well as members of the congregation at St. Augustine -- had been in the kitchen since 9 a.m. "We cooked 48 briskets and a little over 220 chicken halves. And they're just going out!" he smiled.

The barbecue -- and Strawder's "celebrity" status -- was all to raise money for a new community garden that St. Augustine is planting in the once vacant lot behind its church. It's not the first time that the St. Augustine, the oldest African-American Episcopal church in Texas, has built something amazing for its community, however.

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The church has served its surrounding community for more than 125 years.
The church, which was founded in 1884, is also responsible for creating St. Vincent's House, a long-running non-profit that serves "the disadvantaged, underserved and working poor population" of Galveston by offering day care, free clinics and food pantries, among other services. St. Augustine has a history of reaching out to its community and its less fortunate neighbors, even if the congregation itself is just barely getting by.

That was the case back in 2008, when Hurricane Ike struck Galveston with a vengeance. The church and its parish hall were flooded and suffered heavy damage. Fast-forward to December 2010, and the congregation has built a brand-new parish hall that's now serving as a community center for the impoverished Lasker Park neighborhood and has set its sights on a community garden as well.

Karen Lehr, who has attended St. Augustine for three years now, is a retired librarian from Oklahoma who's embraced St. Augustine and its congregation as her new home. She also happens to be a Master Gardener and a landscape architect, talents that have been instrumental to researching and planning the garden.


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