Christmas at First Church
by Martin Thielen
December 1, 2021
Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. . . . “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:4, 10–11 NIV).
Several years ago, I heard about a Methodist church in North Carolina who spearheaded a wintertime homeless ministry. They recruited fourteen other churches in their city to care for homeless people for one week each winter. Each church opened up its facilities, usually the fellowship hall, to care for eighteen to twenty homeless guests. They provided a warm and safe place to sleep, along with meals, transportation, and other assistance throughout the week.
In early November the cooperating churches gathered for their final organizational meeting. The agenda included scheduling a specific week for each church during the winter months. The United Methodist pastor planned to go to the meeting. However, given her busy schedule, she asked a woman from her church to go in her place. This woman, a new church member, was an enthusiastic and devoted layperson. The pastor gave her a list of convenient weeks in January and February for their congregation to care for the homeless group. The pastor told her, “Make sure to schedule us for one of these weeks.”
The woman went to the meeting. But not long into the meeting, they reached an impasse. Not one of the fifteen cooperating churches expressed willingness to take Christmas week. First, it interfered with all their Christmas activities, including Christmas Eve services. Second, everybody knew their members would not want to cook meals and provide other services for homeless folks during the Christmas holidays. This woman felt dumbfounded. She could not believe that none of the churches would take the week of Christmas. In fact, the more they argued about who was going to have to take Christmas, the madder this woman got. Before she knew it, she smashed her hand down on the table, stood up, and gave a speech. “I can’t believe this,” she exclaimed. “Jesus and his family were homeless in Bethlehem on the very first Christmas, and yet not one church in this community is willing to care for homeless people during the week of Christmas. Shame on you!”
The pastors all felt ashamed—but not ashamed enough to volunteer for the week of Christmas! When nobody volunteered, this laywoman boldly proclaimed, “My church, the First United Methodist Church, will take Christmas week, not only this year but every year.” One of the pastors quickly said, “So moved.” Another said, “I’ll second that.” After a quick vote the meeting adjourned.
After leaving the meeting, this woman went to see her pastor, full of excitement. She said: “I have great news! Our church gets to care for homeless people during the week of Christmas not only this year but every year! Isn’t that great?” Well, that wasn’t exactly great news to the pastor. What about their Christmas Eve services? How would they find volunteers to cook and care for homeless people during the holidays? No, this was not good news at all to the pastor. She deeply regretted not going to the meeting herself. But what could she do? It was a done deal.
The next Sunday the pastor gave the news to her congregation. She said, “We are going to host homeless people during the week of Christmas, and we need a bunch of volunteers to help.” She didn’t think she would get any response, but her assumption proved wrong. People came out of the woodwork to volunteer. Families with young children volunteered, saying to the pastor, “We want our kids to know there is more to Christmas than getting presents.” Families who had lost loved ones during the year volunteered, hoping to fill the void of the Christmas season. The pastor almost received more volunteers than she could use. Christmas week finally arrived. Eighteen homeless people came to the Methodist church to spend the week. And much to this pastor’s surprise, it ended up being the highlight of the year for the church.
People brought in loads of food. The homeless guests ate like kings all week. Church members also brought nice clothes and coats for them to wear. They brought gifts for everyone, especially the children. And they didn’t just give food, clothes, and gifts—they gave of themselves as well. People stayed for hours to visit with the group. They ate meals with them and played games with them. They even held a three-day-long marathon Monopoly tournament! Many members spent one or more nights during the week. The church members got to know their guests as real people. Although they were not required to go, all eighteen of the homeless guests went to the Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service. The congregation warmly welcomed them, and everyone in attendance had a holy moment. In fact, the entire week ended up being a glorious experience for the church, and it continued that way for the next five years.
This story has an unusual ending. After six years of hosting homeless folks during the week of Christmas, the Methodist pastor received a phone call from the Baptist pastor. He said: “Everyone in town has heard how much your church enjoys hosting the homeless group at Christmas. So we wondered if you would you be willing to share that week with some of the other churches? We were hoping we could do Christmas week this year.”
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