Christmas at First Church
Several years ago, I heard about a Methodist church in North Carolina who initiated a homeless ministry. They, along with fourteen other churches in their city, committed to care for homeless people for one week each winter. Their job was to provide them with a warm and safe place to sleep, meals, and other needs for the entire week.
In early November, the cooperating churches had their final organizational meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to schedule a specific week for each church for the winter months. The United Methodist pastor planned to go to the meeting, but she was busy, so she asked a woman from her church to go in her place. This woman, a new Christian and 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 was willing 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, an enthusiastic new Christian believer, was dumbfounded. She could not believe that none of the churches would take Christmas week. In fact, the more they argued about which church 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 said, “So moved.” Another said, “I’ll second that.” After a quick vote, the meeting adjourned.
After the meeting was over, this woman went to see her pastor. She was excited. 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. 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 she was 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.
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 tons of food all week long. The homeless guests ate like kings. 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 and 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 board games with them. They even had a marathon, three-day-long Monopoly tournament! Many members spent one or more nights during the week.
The church members got to know these people as real people. Although they were not required to go, all eighteen of the homeless guests went to the Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service. They were warmly welcomed by the entire congregation, and everyone in attendance had a holy moment. In fact, the whole week turned out to be a glorious experience for the church, and it continued to be that way every year.