During the Christmas season, Westminster Presbyterian Church, located in one of Spokane's lowest-income neighborhoods, West Central, serves many struggling families. The need is always great in West Central but Christmas is especially tough for most families because the electricity bills are high, the kids are on winter break, meaning more meals are eaten (or skipped) at home and Christmas is right around the corner with parents wishing to provide a cheerful holiday for their family...
But wait, that's the scripted story at middle-class Whitworth Presbyterian Church where church members are asked to purchase presents for needy families who attend Westminster. How do a few extra presents under a tree help share Jesus' love? And how does it keep the electricity on and fill the empty tummies? These are questions I asked myself that Christmas I served at Westminster House in West Central.
Seven months after graduating from Whitworth University, I sat in the living room of a house around the corner from Westminster interviewing Dave and Stacey, the two toughest guys on the block. I vividly remember the crusty, gritty carpets caked with a mixture of spilled food and dirt, the smell of cigarette smoke, the laughter as the kids jumped on the bed, and the glow of the big screen TV. Dave described what his four children wanted for Christmas: something practical and fun. Then it was the adults' turn. I was uncomfortable asking adults what they want for Christmas. Dave wanted a sweatshirt or something like that. Stacey, a big, loud, tough guy, wanted a beanie. "A beanie?" I asked, "any specific color?" No, just a beanie. I felt bad for whomever would be buying Stacey's present. How do you choose a beanie for a stranger? Stacey, his wife and two children, had lived next to Dave when I moved into the neighborhood. Stacey scared me at first. His eyes always pointed in two different directions, and never directly at me, so I never knew if he was talking to me or not. His wife left with his two children a few months before Christmas. Stacey lost his house and, at the time of our interview, he was sleeping on his neighbor Dave's couch. I knew Christmas would be tough for Stacey this year. But knowing Stacey's story still didn't make me feel like he "needed" a middle-class family to buy him a beanie. Stacey could buy his own beanie. Somehow he and Dave were able to afford a new big screen tv and video games a few months prior.
Santa Joe came to Westminster Presbyterian Church that Christmas, like he does every year. He brought the requested presents to all the children, to their parents, and to Stacey. Stacey sat in the back of the room, closest to the food. I was lucky to turn my head just in time to watch Stacey unwrap his beanie, and shove it on his head. Something happened to Stacey's eyes at that moment. I mean something happened to his "tough guy" persona (that's not the right word either). I think it melted away for a moment. I think maybe, just maybe, Stacey felt loved.
This Christmas as I ponder and worry about how to teach my three year-old generosity on a day that is sure to be all about her presents, I remember Stacey's beanie and I wonder where it is now. Does he wear it to work everyday? Is it in a closet somewhere, or a forgotten box? I guess it doesn't really matter where that beanie is, what was given to Stacey in that little package was love, Christ's love. My daughter will sit on Santa Joe's lap this year and will receive a couple of presents. She will also watch her friends, children who attend Westminster Presbyterian Church on a regular basis, receive presents from Santa Joe. Presents that a middle-class family carefully choose and wrapped so that they could be a part of sharing Christ's love with others this Christmas.
Once I began to break down the barriers and the stereotypes, I realized Santa Joe is about two communities coming together to have a birthday party for Jesus and that is what I hope my daughter will understand this Christmas.
(December 26 is celebrated in the Western Christian calendar as St. Stephen's Day, or the Feast of Stephen, the first martyr of the church, see Acts 6 and 7. Stephen was a wise and faithful Greek-speaking disciple chosen to coordinate the daily distribution of food to widows.)
After her year with Westminster House in 2005, Jessica served/worked for the Boy Scouts of America and recently began a new position with Whitworth University as a Gift Accounting and Database Systems Specialist. Jessica shares her marvelous gifts with the Krista Foundation as the Spokane Breakfast RSVP & Logistics Coordinator.