Part 11 in our “12 Days of Christmas” series
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Jan. 3, 2015) – For the past seven years, Christmas has come early in December for First Farragut United Methodist Church as we invite the friends and neighbors we’ve met and served through our mobile pantries to a Christmas Community Day celebration!
This year, the celebration happened on Sunday, Dec. 7. Approximately 200 volunteers from our church and several local Boy and Girl Scout troops welcomed 97 families (372 individuals) into our building to offer them Christmas love through food, gifts, prayers, clothes, and much more.
After a combined worship service, the congregation immediately stepped into motion and converted our worship space into a dining room to seat more than 200. (Our guests were served in several shifts.) One team mobilized the dining room so that every table had adequate servers to bring food, drinks, desserts and conversation. Another team of volunteers organized the musical entertainment. Another team set up a break room with lunch and snacks for the volunteers. Others scurried throughout the building to prepare their stations to offer Christ, “Merry Christmas” and the unique gifts of their ministry areas.
After receiving invitations in the mail, our guests had RSVP’d. Their excitement showed as the line began to form about 10 a.m. for the 1 p.m. event. After each guest family ate their meals, they were invited to visit the various Christmas stations set up throughout the building.
At the “Wesley’s Attic Station,” sponsored by our United Methodist Women, each family was invited to select gently used clothes, new socks and underwear for each of their children. 158 children were clothed at this event. We also were able to find new homes for 50 coats! For the first time this year, a dedicated, gifted member of our congregation knitted more than 300 beautiful hats, some with matching scarves. Each child was allowed to select his or her own.
Parents were invited to “shop” for a free, brand-new gift purchased by the Rita Hommel Endowment and gifted from several community groups, including the Farragut Kiwanis K-Kids Group and church volunteers. Almost 200 gifts were selected and wrapped for each child present.
While the parents shopped, the children were invited into the Craft Station and then to the Book Station. More than 1,800 books in English and Spanish -- new or gently used -- had been collected. More than 1,000 books were given away. (The remaining 800 books, along with remaining Christmas gifts, were later delivered to Morgan-Scott Project.)
The Prayer Center was open with Bibles, Upper Room devotional books, prayer crosses and opportunities to pray with someone. In addition, we gathered prayer requests on cards to share with our prayer team.
The Santa Station, complete with busy elves, was a hopping, busy place as each family waited for their children to be photographed with Santa and Mrs. Claus. The keepsake photos were placed inside the frames the children had created and decorated themselves at the Craft Station.
Finally, before checking out for the day, each of the honored guests stopped by the “Bag Station.” Here, we distributed 155 grocery bags filled with ham, canned chicken, cheese, bread, pasta, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, crackers, soups, canned vegetables, dried beans, applesauce, cereal, corn muffin mix, cookies, candy, fruit, detergent, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, diapers, and wipes.
During my first year as pastor at First Farragut, the congregation told me I had to see and be present at Christmas Community Day to understand what it was like. Now I can say I agree with them. This day has never felt like people who have too much are just giving things away to people in more meager circumstances. For all of the three years I have been privileged to walk among our Christmas Community, this particular day feels like what Christmas is supposed to feel like. Every person in attendance is so grateful and excited to be present, so humbled to participate in something that is more about God’s generous gifts than about us.
We are thrilled to welcome our friends back into the church home that we love, but we know it is merely a building. Some of our guests dress in Christmas finery, some in everyday clothes, some may come from their jobs. But all come with joy, and for a few hours, a new community -- a new, fully inclusive and representative body of Christ -- is created. Somehow worship is so much richer and deeper -- our communion and community are so much stronger -- when more of God’s children can gather in one space and eat, drink and laugh together.
I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m bragging on my church. I’m just trying to capture the incredible display of gracious generosity and Christmas spirit of this day. It humbles and overwhelms me – and all those who get close to it.