First responders got a moment to relish in a few stress-free moments of conversation with their fellow colleagues and chow down on barbecue during an appreciation luncheon Monday held in their honor at Pine Bluff First Assembly of God.

As first responders entered the doors of the church, they were immediately greeted with enthusiastic “thank yous” and “good jobs” from a tunnel of church members leading from the lobby area to the serving area, accompanied by balloon waving, American flags and a hearty round of applause.

“That reception out front is outstanding,” said Mark Fallis, a captain with the Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Department. “We’ve never been greeted like that.”

Just like Fallis, members of the Pine Bluff Police Department, Arkansas state troopers, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders gathered at the church on Ridgway Road between 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

First responders filed in and out of the room set up with American flag-themed ribbons and balloons, catching up with old friends and savoring a plate of barbecue prepared by First Assembly church member and state trooper Oscar Bullard.

“He is very skilled as a chef, too. Barbecue is his expertise,” Pine Bluff First Assembly Church of God Pastor Gary Bell said. “I sure thought that was neat that we’ve got a law enforcement officer who is preparing the meal for law enforcement, and firefighters and EMTs.”

As Bell explained, the luncheon was pretty straight-forward and a means to show first responders that despite the negative perception some residents and others have of them, they are still valued by individuals in the community who respect the strides they take every day to save lives.

“We wanted to seize upon an opportunity to honor our first responders. Pretty much in a nutshell,” Bell said. “Sometimes they receive negative press, and they’re not as appreciated as they should be, and so we’re just capitalizing on the opportunity here on the fourth of July, celebrating our freedom to appreciate those people that look after our best interest on a consistent basis.”

The Pine Bluff First Assembly Church of God has been honoring first responders through the luncheon since last year with no plans to stop any time soon, according to Bell.

“We started this last year. We started it as a, you know, creative idea and the response from the people we honored was so positive that we decided to do this each year and make it an annual event,” Bell said.

Although many of the honored guests were still on duty during the luncheon and weren’t able to hang around for hours, those who worked hard to put the event together expressed that they were happy first responders had the time to sit back, relax, and be appreciated for the work that they do.