An article about the increased support for refugees this Christmas is available here.
[Episcopal News Service] Advent may be the time to await Christ’s coming, but in many Episcopal Church congregations, it is also time to turn outward to their neighbors near and far to help them experience the joy of Christmas.
Some congregations have organized toy drives for children, often those served by local social service agencies or who have a parent in prison. In parish halls and narthexes there are mitten trees trimmed with hats, gloves, scarves and, yes, mittens – and sometimes even socks for folks in need.
A Garden of Warmth at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Buffalo, New York, is blooming on, around and under a trellis behind the cathedral’s Homeless Jesus statue. Coats, warm hats, mittens, gloves, socks, heavy shoes and scarves will be set out all winter. “Take what you need,” reads the sign.
The Very Rev. Will Mebane, the cathedral’s interim dean, said the idea for the garden came about in two simple ways. A man came by the cathedral office asking for warm clothing, but the church had nothing to give. About the same time, a member of the cathedral emailed Mebane to suggest that after having spent money to revitalize the cathedral gardens, perhaps there needed to be a Garden of Warmth for homeless people who often sleep in the neighborhood.
On First Advent, church members set up a trellis behind the Homeless Jesus statue in Cathedral Park and attached cold weather clothing and accessories, all free and available for the taking.
The original plan called for the garden to be up for that one Sunday but the volume of donated items was so great, “the energy was so high” around the idea of the garden, that the cathedral is taking in donations of winter outerwear (and recently food and hygiene items) and the garden will continue to bloom as long as there are donations and a need, Mebane said.
“Each day brings a surprise” that illuminates the generosity of a city known for its neighborliness but where in some neighborhoods 50 percent of residents live below the poverty line, he said.
“Sometimes the best things are the simplest things. We all sit around and do strategic planning meetings and visioning meetings … and try to figure out what we ought to be doing,” Mebane said. “And here’s a lady siting at home with a thought and sends a simple email and it just speaks directly to what we are called to do as disciples of Christ.”
Elsewhere in the church, Christmas food baskets are being assembled and delivered; meals are being planned and cooked for neighbors who need a warm place and a warm plate.
In the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, Bishop Audrey Scanlan and the diocesan staff, along with some members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Mount Carmel, in the Pennsylvania coal country, will cook and serve a Christmas dinner at St. Stephen’s Center for Ministry and clean up afterward. The meal and simple gifts for an anticipated 45 people – men, women and children, some homeless and some who work but do not have enough to eat – will be sponsored by the diocese in lieu of a staff gift exchange or holiday luncheon.
The community around Christ Church in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, was invited in on Dec. 12 as a group of 28 children brought their Christmas stockings to be blessed by the Rev. Lisa S. Mitchell, the congregation’s rector.
St. Nicholas came to the parish house where they gathered to tell the children his story and to give them each two gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins: one to keep in their stockings and one to give away to someone else. The children also decorated the parish house Christmas tree and then made cards and decorated Christmas cookies for the children staying at St. Clare’s Home, a pediatric transitional community home in nearby Neptune.
The stocking blessing idea came from New Jersey Bishop William “Chip” Stokes who told Mitchell about a similar service in a parish where he was once the rector. “So we put a sign up on the fence” that faces a busy street last year and invited the community, Mitchell said.
“Most people want their kids to not think of Christmas as ‘give me, give me, give me,’ ” Mitchell said, adding that the 90 minutes of activities gives parents a way to draw their children into the deeper levels of Christmas. She called the stocking blessing “a very gentle way” of teaching people about the Incarnation.
Many of the parents who come are not regular attendees at Christ Church and they leave with a card listing all the rest of the Advent and Christmas services. The December event is an extension of the parish’s “Seeing is Believing” monthly program for children and their parents or grandparents where participants are invited to explore and develop their spirituality.
Children, youth and their parents have also been delving into the deeper levels of Advent and Christmas at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Keller, Texas. That exploration has been happening through the parish’s continuing relationship with the Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County, which since 1888 has been dedicated to helping homeless people.
The parish has a year-round targeted monthly giving campaign, meant in part to help teach children to understand that others need some basic things the children might take for granted. It fits in well with the religious education curriculum’s goals of pray, give, worship, serve and love.
As she looked ahead to Advent and Christmas this year, Corrie Cabes, the parish’s children and youth minister and chaplain to St. Martin’s Episcopal School, said the parish’s previous practice of having an “angel tree” for children at a school far from the church “fell flat” because the two organizations had no other ties. That’s when she looked to their experience with UGM “because we had such a strong connection and relationship.”
The parish decided to switch its toy drive to UGM. It began the drive in late October and ended it on Dec. 6 because “we really wanted folks to anticipate Advent and start getting mindful and getting ready for the journey we were about to take,” Cabes said. The early December cutoff meant “people could really dig into Advent.”
On the first Sunday of Advent, St. Nicholas came to St. Martin’s to tell his story and help the children realize that by helping others, they could engage in saintly behavior. As the toy drive closed on the Second Sunday of Advent, traditionally the day when the parish held its very busy Advent Fest, Cabes and other leaders made the day into a quiet one with music by an a capella group from a nearby high school. “We prayed for the children [who would receive the toys] and then we rested in God’s grace,” Cabes said.
The entire parish spent the Third Sunday of Advent making sack lunches for UGM clients, complete with Christmas cookies and holiday-decorated sacks as part of its monthly Service Sunday. And on Dec. 20, St. Martin’s PreYC group of second- to fifth-graders will make prayer cards to put on each UGM resident’s pillow to give the residents hope in their efforts to develop the skills and self-confidence they need to attain self-sufficiency.
The parish recently received a large package from UGM filled with “amazing” thank-you cards but, Cabes said, the thanks ought to go the other way because “they minister to us and they change us, they transform us; what we do is so small compared to what they give to us.”
And the gift for St. Martin’s younger members is that “it’s really good for them to see that it’s a powerful thing for everyone to focus their energy on goodness and helping people.”
A similar year-round relationship is developing in Miami between Trinity Cathedral and 31 children and their families who live in the Amistad Apartments in the Little Havana section of the city. The apartments, part of a transition housing program of the city, an affordable-housing developer and a nonprofit agency, mark the first time in a long time that the previously homeless children have lived in a secure place.
The same is true for their young parents, many of whom have never cooked in a kitchen or cleaned a home, much less lived in a place of their own, according to the Rev. Grey Maggiano, an assistant priest at the cathedral. The cathedral began working with the Amistad residents in March 2014, offering activities for the children, classes for their parents and help with school supplies.
This will be the second Christmas that cathedral members, young and old, have put on a party for the Amistad children. Kids from both the cathedral and the apartments will play together and have the chance to get their picture taken with Santa Claus. Meanwhile, out of the children’s sight, the Amistad parents will collect presents to give to their children on Christmas.
Maggiano said the organizers’ goal is to “make it fun for the kids and not feel like charity.” And, there are gifts to the cathedral members as well.
“For those of us with young children, it’s just a great way for us to expose our kids to people who are from vastly different backgrounds … and help them realize that they’re the same,” he said. “My hope is that my daughter doesn’t grow up with the presumption that people who are poor are less than she is. They’re just like us; they just happen to have fallen on hard times.”
In Atlanta each December, third-graders at Holy Innocents Episcopal School bring to school new teddy bears to donate to a charity. This year, the children’s bears will go to Emmaus House, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta that provides education, opportunity, assistance and advocacy to the underserved.
Before the teddy bears leave campus, however, the students attend a special chapel service during which the gifted bears are blessed. “The Blessing of the Bears is a tradition that highlights the importance of working to serve others in Atlanta,” Lower School Chaplain Timothy Seamans explained. “Third-graders make a commitment to independently raise money, most performing chores for families, neighbors, or friends. With those earnings, each student purchases a teddy bear as a Christmas gift for a child at the Emmaus House. To underline that our call to service is linked to our faith in God, before sending the bears off, we give them a blessing.”
Episcopalians and their friends are also looking out for the mariners who bring to the United States most of the goods needed to celebrate the holidays. Between donations to the Christmas-at-Sea program of the Seamen’s Church Institute (which includes inland waterways as well as seaports) and the Mission to Seafarers, hundreds of mariners will get handmade and store-bought sweaters, hats, gloves, mittens and scarves as well as candy, toiletries, books and games.
For instance, the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s Episcopal Church Women is in its fourth year of celebrating Christmas on the River. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Missouri, are but two parishes involved in such ministry.
In some places, such as St. David’s Episcopal Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania, people shopping for Christmas gifts for their family and friends can help the church’s mission. St. David’s gift shop features items from the United States and around the world with a special emphasis on fair trade goods. All proceeds benefit St. David’s international outreach missions in Guatemala, Haiti and Uganda.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri, puts together an annual catalog gifts that support the outreach programs of the parish, The Episcopal Church and selected area not-for-profit groups. Each Christmas Outreach Shopper gift comes with a card to let a person know that a donation has been made in his or her name.
That, of course, is also the way Episcopal Relief & Development’s Gifts for Life catalog works. Episcopalians (and anyone else) can purchase a variety of gifts for people around the world to help fight poverty, hunger and disease. Those gifts can be given in honor of a family member or friend.
Gifts ideas range from a $5,000 village well to $12 for one insecticide-treated bed net to protect against malaria, and the training needed for proper use. Other gifts include chickens, pigs, cows, goats, trees, vegetable seeds, efficient cook stoves, health care services and microloans. The money spent through the catalog will be matched, up to $750,000, for Episcopal Relief & Development’s 75th Anniversary Fund.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.