Throughout each Christmas season, the gift of love is expressed through many different ways. Through a smile, an exchanged gift or even an embrace with a loved one, we are each recipients of love. However, as it says in the Bible, “Even greater is God’s wonderful grace and gift of righteousness.”

This past year, twelve churches and organizations that are each a part of the Urban Alliance network displayed the wonderful gift of God’s love, many times collaboratively, through sharing the true meaning behind Christmas – Jesus.

Local Collaboration Brings Global Impact: Operation Christmas Child

Samaritan’s Purse, a non-denominational evangelical Christian humanitarian organization, works worldwide to assist people in physical need alongside their Christian missionary work. They work in more than 100 countries around the world, and one of their ongoing ministries in Operation Christmas Child – a ‘global Christmas gift exchange’.

Wintonbury Church, a participant in the Urban Alliance network, has been participating in Operation Christmas Child (O.C.C.) for over ten years, and has been an Operation Christmas Child Collection Center for Central Connecticut for the last four years.

Each November, Operation Christmas Child opens thousands of locations, including Wintonbury Church in Bloomfield, to collect shoeboxes filled with toys, school supplies, personal items and other gifts. Accompanied by Christian literature, the boxes are then distributed as Christmas gifts in more than 130 countries worldwide. Last year, 8.2 million shoeboxes were distributed!

Urban Alliance network participants Valley Community Baptist Church (Avon) and Calvary Church (West Hartford) were two of the many churches that collected shoeboxes locally, that were then brought to Wintonbury Church in order to be distributed globally.

Lois Hales, director of children’s ministry at Valley Community Baptist Church, which has been involved with Operation Christmas Child for over six years, helped coordinate the collection of 330 shoeboxes this year, by children age eleven and under.

“We like to give children an opportunity to serve, and this [is] a great way for families to do something together that promotes generosity and a servant’s heart,” explained Hales.

For the last two years, Stephanie Parker has been helping organize Operation Christmas Child shoebox collection at Calvary Church, also a UA network participant. This year, they collected 75 shoeboxes, twice as many as they collected the previous year.

“I see God multiplying this ministry because it is important to Him. He loves children and these gifts represent the free gift of Jesus [that is] available to all who will accept Him,” said Parker, “I see God working in our congregation by the generosity of our [members]. The generosity that they are displaying comes from a true love for Jesus and others, and a desire to honor God with everything He has blessed us with.”

The shoeboxes collected by Valley Community Baptist Church and Calvary Church were a part of the 11,225 shoeboxes that were collected by 250 local churches, many of which are participants in the Urban Alliance network, and brought to the collection center at Wintonbury Church.

Julie Gibson, member at Wintonbury Church and the Collection Center Coordinator for Operation Christmas Child at Wintonbury, was first involved with the program when her children were very young.

“I loved that in a culture saturated with the ‘give me’ mentality that there was a ministry where my children could help shop for and pick out gifts for children who had nothing,” explained Gibson.

She is passionate about the positive impact of the Operation Christmas Child ministry.

“This year, we collected 11,225 shoeboxes! That’s 11,225 Gospel opportunities, [with] joy and hope in each box! As churches get involved and better understand the impact of this ministry, they are beginning to understand that it’s such an easy and tangible way to reach children with the Gospel in places most of us will never travel. It’s very exciting to see the number of boxes grow each year as people catch the vision of the impact of a simple gift,” Gibson said. 

More Than a Wrapped Gift: Toys for Tots

This year, Wintonbury Church was also involved with Toys for Tots, along with five other participants in the Urban Alliance network. From collecting and sorting toys to wrapping and distributing them, these participants were involved in the various stages of the Toys for Tots program, many times collaborating along the way.

Toys for Tots, a program that is run by the United Stated Marine Corps Reserve, was founded in 1947 by William L. Hendricks. Their hope is to “deliver, through a new toy at Christmas, a message of hope…that will assist [children] in becoming responsible, productive, patriotic citizens.”

Hendricks began the program after being inspired by his wife Diane when she tried to donate a homemade Raggedy Ann doll to a child in need, but could not find an organization to do so. After her suggestion he gathered a group of local Marine reservists, who coordinated and collected more than 5,000 toys for local children that year. As of 2009, the Toys for Tots program and Foundation have collected and distributed almost five hundred million toys.

For the past three years, House of Praise and Worship/Casa de Adoracion y Alabanza (Hartford) has been providing toys for children in the local community. Pastor Joel Cruz, Jr., a former Marine, and his wife Karla head up the effort each year along with the help of many members from their church, House of Praise and Worship, and volunteers. For the second year in a row, Wintonbury Church helped wrap toys that were distributed at House of Praise and Worship.

After contacting a local military base to see how they could help, Joel and Karla Cruz opened the doors to their church on a cold Saturday morning for Toys for Tots for the first time in 2009. The word had spread and people had already lined up for toys. It was then that the Cruz’s realized the true need, and wanted to help.

The following year, many families in the local community faced layoffs and exceptionally difficult financial strains during the holiday season. Karla Cruz remembers one mother in particular who approached her with tears in her eyes and said, “If it wasn’t for you and this church giving out toys, my children would not have anything this year under the tree. I was recently laid off from my job and have not been able to find a job.”

Two years later, Cruz explains, “Those words never leave me and I can still remember her face of joy.” It’s moments like those that she says they continue each year.

“God is our priority, and He is the reason for the [Christmas] season. By seeing young ones smile and parents spreading joy, just because we are lending a helping hand is priceless. At the end of the day we are coming together as one church with the purpose of serving the community. A building will be just that – a building with walls. Church is inside of us and what we give is hope, peace, joy and we spread the word of God by acts of kindness, which are bigger than words,” said Cruz.

This year, nearly 100 volunteers and members from House of Praise and Worship distributed 816 toys to 201 families and 557 children, all from the Hartford area.

Alicia Franko, member and Toys for Tots coordinator for Glory Chapel International Cathedral (Hartford), a participant in the Urban Alliance network, also described the joy of a smile: “I see the smiles on their faces. Everyone is excited! It’s something special.”

Glory Chapel has been involved with the Toys for Toys program for many years. Like House of Praise and Worship, their efforts first began with a desire to serve the community. After a conversation at her church, Franko wrote letters to toy companies and received a quick response. She wrapped each donated toy and helped distribute them to children in the local community. Fifteen years later, more than 300 gifts are distributed each Christmas through Glory Chapel.

Each year, Glory Chapel partners with Youth Challenge of CT, also a UA network participant, and distributes toys collected through Toys for Tots to families involved with the Youth Challenge program, both in Hartford and Moosup, Connecticut.

But in the months and weeks before Christmas, the preparations begin for Toys for Tots all across the Urban Alliance network. Radio stations are contacted, flyers are distributed and volunteers are recruited to help carry out the efforts.

Jody Davis, executive director at Coram Deo Recovery Living Centers, a participant in the UA network, described their involvement this year: “Until this year, we had only received from Toys for Tots. But this year, we were able to send volunteers to help sort and distribute the toys. The enjoyed [it] immensely.”

Thanks to a connection made through Judah House, also a participant in the Urban Alliance network, Coram Deo is able to distribute toys to about 8 families each year through Toys for Tots.

The women involved with Coram Deo, a transitional living program that helps them learn the necessary skills to function independently in the community while still managing their recovery from addition, aren’t often given the opportunity to serve the community. Davis explains, “Our women had a place to go volunteer for someone ‘less fortunate’ – and in general, it is difficult to find someone less fortunate than the women we serve, so it truly is a blessing that they were able to give back this way.” 

Corendis Dawson-Bonner, executive director at Judah House, a program that provides housing, case management, faith-based counseling, support groups, childcare and life skills development to homeless woman and their children, helped not only to connect Coram Deo with Toys for Tots, but was involved with much of the sorting and distribution of thousands of toys that were piled up at the Toys for Tots distribution center in Plainville. 

Dawson-Bonner, along with women from Judah House and Coram Deo, connected with Rhonda Clark, unit president and department historian for the Marine Corps League Auxiliary in Torrington. Under Clark’s direction and coordination, the women worked hard at matching requests with toys, as they hand picked games, sports equipment, stuffed animals, books and even bikes to be distributed to families in need in the local community.

During this past Christmas season, the women of Coram Deo also attended a Christmas party that was complete with generous gifts that were donated, food and an abundance of laughter.

“The overall goal of the Christmas party was to demonstrate God’s love and gift to us through the birth of His son Jesus…it gave them a taste of kindess and goodness, love made visable – not only through gifts, but through laughter and a meal,” explained Davis.

More Than a Store: Hartford City Mission’s Noah Christmas Store

This year, Hartford City Mission (HCM), an Urban Alliance network participant, held the first ever Noah Christmas Store, which provided parents of children from the North Hartford community to “purchase” – through a suggested donation – new, donated gifts at hugely discounted prices. The proceeds received from the store, which totaled $1100.00, will be used by Hartford City Mission to send children involved with their after-school programs to Lakeside Christian Camp this coming summer.

Through this model, parents helped to support their children by providing Christmas gifts and also providing funding for a meaningful summer camp experience.

Amy Jarvis, HCM’s Director of Children’s Ministry, was inspired to organize the Christmas store after attending the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference this past fall and learning about similar store models through Bob Lupton of Focused Community Ministries, which, since 1976, has been based on practicing equality, believing that every voice matters, that all people are created in the image of God and on the guiding adage, “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.”

Jarvis, along with Cheryl Maida, HCM’s Assistant Director of Children’s Ministry, coordinated the Christmas store. Along with several community groups and individuals, four Urban Alliance network participants: Calvary Church (West Hartford), Wintonbury Church, First Church of Christ (Wethersfield) and Valley Community Baptist Church (Avon) donated over 800 gifts to the store, including games, art supplies, stuffed animals, handmade hats and gloves and even bikes, which were made available to over 50 local families.

“The idea is that instead of parents having to…try to get gifts from other people to give to their child that they couldn’t afford for themselves, why not have a store where quality toys are priced, by suggested donation amounts, at a bargain price? [Parents] can come in, shop for their kids and pick out what their kids would like,” said Jarvis.

The day was complete with hot cocoa, free giftwrapping and even a room where children could play while their parents shopped.

The first Noah Christmas Store was a huge success. Jarvis explained, “Everyone had a great time. They loved the selection of toys. One mom went out of her way to say thank you and was very positive. She walked over to me with her three boys and said she didn’t have plans for purchasing Christmas gifts, and that this was wonderful.”

A Celebration of Cultures at House of Restoration

At House of Restoration Church/Iglesia Casa de Restauracion (Hartford), a participant in the Urban Alliance network, Christmas and Three Kings Day were recently celebrated through unique events that shared God’s love.

Daniel Torres, executive director at Restoring Lives Community Development Corportation, which is affiliated and was begun at House of Restoration, described the celebration that was complete with dinner, singing, Christmas activities and gift distributions: “The Three Kings Celebration was an event that we held for Queen Esther Ministries foster care parents and adoptive parents. We wanted to make it a special day for these beautiful and brave parents, [who] have opened their homes to accept a [foster] child and give them a home. We wanted to recognize their continued efforts, taking into account the real meaning of Christmas and also celebrating a very strong cultural tradition of the three kings.”

That day, fifty gifts, including toys, gift baskets and worship music CDs, which were produced by House of Restoration’s choir and music department, were distributed.

“There are so many ‘wrong’ places where children find ‘love’ today. Through these small yet meaningful efforts, children can find God’s love and purpose in their lives, through us, the local church,” said Torres.

A few weeks later, House of Restoration held its annual Culture Night/Noche Tipica, which was a Christmas celebration of the many cultures represented through their church and the local community.

Pastor Miriam Torres of House of Praise and Worship described the community event as a unique night of celebrating God’s creation at Christmastime. A parade of nations, where people are dressed in the traditional clothing of their native countries is held, in addition to multi-cultural music and a vast array of ethnic foods.

“It’s really great to see all the different cultures that are represented in the church, and celebrate this at Christmas,” said Pastor Torres.

Feeding Many Needs: Citadel of Love

Darlene Holiday knows what it is like to try to meet needs through serving the local community. Each weekend, she is a part of a group that prepares and serves food for anywhere between 75-100 people at My Brother’s Keeper, a program now in its tenth year, that she coordinates at her church, Citadel of Love (Hartford), also participant in the Urban Alliance network. 

“Even though people [in need] feel like nobody is there to help them, they see the church as a resource, and they are guaranteed a meal every week. We make sure [whomever] needs clothing gets it. Not only do we do that, we have people who need housing. We help connect them to the right people [who can help],” explained Holiday, “Even during these times of cruelty in the world, and even though we are a small church, our hearts are big. The community recognizes that. The Bible says if the church can’t be for the community, there is no church. We cannot stay within our walls. We have to go outside in the community.”

For the fourth year in a row, My Brother’s Keeper held a special Christmas dinner, complete with a Christmas play and gift distribution to over 100 families from the local community. Two additional UA network participants, Trinity Covenant Church (Manchester) and Wintonbury Church (Bloomfield) partnered with Citadel of Love to provide donations, including toys, clothing and gifts for this year’s event. Valley Community Baptist Church (Avon) also partners with Citadel of Love throughout the year to provide food donations to the community.

Each year, a free meal is provided and a Christmas play is performed during the meal. Holiday described the event: “As the play is going on, and the meal is served, there is a message [of hope] being given. Right now, in these dark times in Hartford, there is more poverty in our community than we could even imagine. Jesus is the light of the world and He wants that light to shine. The church as a whole has to respond, and be a light to our community. We do the play to remind people that there is still hope, and through the true meaning of Christmas, that there is somewhere they can always go where love is spread through community and fellowship,” she continued, “When they leave, it’s not ‘they gave us this’ but that they received the message of Christ.”

The Ultimate Gift

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 12:12 (NIV)

As we enter the New Year, and all of the many gifts, toys and efforts have been given, we can reflect on the numbers. After all, over 13,000 gifts were distributed Urban Alliance network participants. But more importantly, as a network, we remained focused on the One – the most important gift of all, who is the Purpose, the Reason and the Meaning behind the Christmas season – Jesus.