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Christmas tree theft becomes blessing for Lakeland church

Christmas tree theft becomes blessing for Lakeland church

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Christmas tree theft becomes blessing for Lakeland church

Dec. 8, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0583}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

A customer at United Methodist Temple's Christmas tree lot inspects a potential keeper. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-477. Web photo only.

LAKELAND — What thieves meant for evil has turned into a fountain of blessings for the United Methodist Men at United Methodist Temple.

The men’s group has been selling Christmas trees on the southwest corner of Florida Avenue in Lakeland for more than 40 years and had never had a problem with anyone stealing trees until this year.

Stan Shively, a past president of the group and the person responsible for ordering the trees, said the church received a shipment of about 1,000 trees from North Carolina and Michigan in mid-November. He said a member went by the church to water them and was surprised to find 30 of the larger, high-end Colorado blue spruce and Fraser firs valued at a total of $2,700 had been stolen. The men’s group paid $35,000 for the whole shipment.

Clay Shaver, a member of the United Methodist Men at the church, said he was shocked to learn of the theft.

“It kind of hurts to have property (stolen) that they know doesn’t belong to them,” said Shaver, who has been a member of the church since 1967.

The church filed a theft report with the Lakeland Police Department and then decided to contact the local newspaper. What followed has actually benefited the Christmas tree project.

The men and their stolen trees garnered national media attention from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News, which has led people to stop by the church to make donations to the tree fund. The profits from the tree sales support a number of church ministries and local nonprofit organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Lakeland Habitat for Humanity, United Methodist Children’s Home, Faith In Action, Salvation Army, Society of St. Andrew and others. The funds also help the church’s United Methodist Temple Foundation provide money for families who need help with mortgage or utilities payments and its United Methodist Men Scholarship Fund support student members who are in band or choir and seeking higher education.

Last year the men made a $16,000 profit from their sole, annual fund-raising project.

The Rev. Al McGowen, pastor of the church, said the theft has been a blessing from God.

“We have received calls from California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, New York — just from all over the United States,” he said. “It’s given us an opportunity to talk to people about our church and what we do, not just here, but in the community.”

Volunteers at United Methodist Temple's Christmas tree lot prepare a tree for a customer. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-478. Web photo only.
McGowen says he is quick to correct people when he hears them say just how terrible the missing trees are. “What someone meant as something terrible, God has used for something good,” he said.

As word spreads about the stolen trees, the men are confident this year’s sales won’t leave them in the red. Shively said donations are coming in from people who aren’t even purchasing trees. He said profits as of Dec. 5 are 10 percent ahead of where they have been in the past at the same time.

Shaver, treasurer of the men’s group, said it feels good to know the loss has been covered. “We can continue to help charities with the money,” he said. “We will still be able to help others.”

While the United Methodist Men never dreamed any of their trees would be stolen, they are equally surprised at the community’s support.

“We are very appreciative of the generosity of the community,” Shively said. “It’s really been heart-warming.”


This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.