1,500 Christmas wishes come true in Kalamazoo
All Sharon Smith wanted was to be warm. For three hours, she waited in a long line, shivering in a sweatshirt in 20-degree temperatures, motivated by hope that when the doors of Stockbridge United Methodist Church opened, she would be one of the first to receive a new coat.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” Smith said. “Life is so hard right now. I gave my only coat to my daughter, so I don’t have one. I just hope they have something that will fit me.”
Watch: Kalamazoo Rethinks Christmas
She got her wish. And so did 1,500 other struggling and homeless residents of Kalamazoo, Mich., who spent a recent Sunday afternoon within the welcoming walls of the small inner-city church with a big heart for giving. For four hours, the church opened its doors to those in need of a hot meal, warm clothes and Christmas presents for their children.
“We’re just a little church in the inner city doing a big thing for the community,” said Lisa Clapp, one of 300 volunteers who showed up to help. “With the economy being so rough right now, people need more help at Christmas—with just the basics like coats and blankets—and it does my heart good to help people who need a hand up.”
Jennifer McClish lost her job this year. The single mom came to Stockbridge’s “A Kalamazoo Christmas” because she heard Toys for Tots had donated about 1,000 toys, and she has two small sons who are expecting a visit from Santa.
“It’s all I can do to just pay my basic bills,” she said. “There isn’t any money left over for Christmas presents, and I just can’t bear to see the disappointment in my son’s faces if there is nothing for them under the tree. I’m hoping we can keep them believing in the magic of Christmas just one more year.”
A local restaurant owner started the newly named giving event six years ago, but today the 100-member congregation continues the tradition. Last year they served about 1,200 people, and this year they geared up for as many as 2,000 after hearing that the local Salvation Army experienced a 40-percent increase in demand in its annual coat distribution.
“Around our church right now, 65 percent of the families are single-parent family,” said Rev. Ron Slager, pastor at Stockbridge United Methodist. “A lot of them are unemployed or underemployed, and there will be slim to none when it comes to gifts under the Christmas tree this year. For folks in our neighborhood, just providing the basics in life is the No. 1 priority.”
Although Stockbridge United Methodist was the catalyst and organizer for the project, nine other United Methodist churches served as drop sites for donated items, in addition to several other churches of various denominations that agreed to be event partners. When it came to volunteers, it was an ecumenical workforce.
“This is part of my neighborhood, so I think it’s important to volunteer to help better it,” said Nicole Alvarez, a member of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. “It doesn’t matter what religious background we’re from. What matters is that we all need to help each other.”
The large turnout in volunteers—many of whom were not local church attendees--was due in part to a Rethink Church media grant received from United Methodist Communications. One of the goals of Rethink Church is to engage with others in the community outside the church walls.
Slager called the event an opportunity for those who claim to be Christians or who have a spark of compassion to grow within themselves.
“It’s actually evangelizing the worker or the servant more than it’s evangelizing the recipient,” Slager said. “So often, we go into a compassion ministry with an ulterior motive, and the motive is that we want to convert someone. We want to change their way of thinking. But what we need to say is simply, ‘I love you,’ and then take care of their basic needs. This is what Jesus wants us to do.” - By Susan Passi-Klaus
Related links:Originally Posted: Apr 27, 2011