United Methodist churches, including some in the Florida Conference, are trying to “shine the light of Christmas” on those in need this year.
Some use the Advent Conspiracy curriculum as a guide, while others have tailored the concept to fit their individual church needs. In each case, pastors and parishioners are hoping to refocus hearts -- and wallets -- on what they believe Christmas should really be about: helping those in need.
Advent Conspiracy was founded in 2006 by several pastors from different backgrounds, including Greg Holder of St. Louis, Chris Seay of Houston and Rick McKinley of Portland, Ore., as a response to what they saw as rampant consumerism around Christmas. The movement is based on four principles: worship fully, spend less, give more and love all.
|"The whole idea is going back to a focus on celebrating Christmas in a way that is not just giving a gift to give a gift but giving a gift that will make a difference in someone's life."
-- Rev. Betty Kniss, Oceanview UMC
Advent Conspiracy partnered with Living Water International in order to build clean-water wells in impoverished areas. In its first year, Advent Conspiracy raised half a million dollars to build a high capacity well in Nicaragua and 13 wells in Liberia. However, the organization’s website allows churches to use its curriculum regardless of what charity benefits.
In the past, Oceanview UMC, Juno Beach, had marked the holiday season with mission fairs featuring products from African artisans and charity drives. Parishioners were asked to donate the cost of a gift they would normally give to a family member or friend to a charity instead.
“This year we wanted to take a look at some different options for Christmas to help our people find other opportunities for giving,” said Rev. Betty Kniss.
“The whole idea is going back to a focus on celebrating Christmas in a way that is not just giving a gift to give a gift but giving a gift that will make a difference in someone’s life.”
In addition to promoting the campaign during worship, Oceanview is also holding Advent Conspiracy classes and reminding parishioners of the needs of the wider community in the affluent area by encouraging donations to the church’s Good Samaritan Fund.
“The fund helps people in our greater community with things like rent, electric and water bills, food and other kinds of emergency help,” Kniss said.
“So we are asking people to spread the light of Christmas through a donation that will give someone a safe place to sleep or eat this year.”
|Carolers from Palm Harbor UMC perform at an assisted living facility in Clearwater as part of the church's efforts to see Christmas as more than an opportunity for gift exchanges between family and friends. Photo from Palm Harbor UMC.|
With a long-established reputation for helping the needy in the area, Oceanview often receives referrals from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the cities of Juno Beach and Jupiter. Kniss knows there is no shortage of need, and it’s getting worse.
“With the cutbacks in food stamps and other kinds of economic difficulties in this area, we have seen a lot of need so we are hoping to make an even bigger difference than we have made in the past.”
While Juno Beach is an upper-class area, “a lot of people who service this area don’t necessarily have a lot of money,” Kniss said.
More than 200 miles to the north, Druid Hills UMC, Ocala, also is participating in Advent Conspiracy. The congregation had raised about 70 percent of its $5,000 goal by two weeks before Christmas, according to the church website. The money is earmarked for Heifer International, which provides livestock and training to impoverished communities, and Stop Hunger Now, a North Carolina hunger relief organization supported by the Florida Conference.
And In Tallahassee, for the fourth year, Killearn UMC is offering an Alternative Christmas Market that provides gift opportunities for a list of local, national or "ends of the Earth" missions.
The Advent Conspiracy idea comes naturally to Palm Harbor UMC, said missions director Ron Evers.
“Our church is getting known in our community and beyond, we hope, as always being the hands and feet of Jesus and always being there to help people in our community,” said Evers, citing the church’s year-round work helping those in need.
Every Saturday during Advent, the church is offering different opportunities for parishioners to serve. Earlier this month, church members teamed with the Salvation Army for every bell-ringing shift at stores throughout the community. A team of church carolers also performed at several assisted living facilities.
Later this month, the church will also give full Christmas dinners out to customers of the Palm Harbor UMC food bank, which was founded in 1985. Children aged infant to 17 will also receive presents. Parishioners also plan to package 10,000 meals for the Stop Hunger Now program later this month.
In addition, the church is connecting families in need with members of the Palm Harbor congregation who will help fulfill a Christmas wish list for the family, an Advent tradition at the church.
“This is just another way of reaching out to people and letting them know they are welcome in our church and giving the people in our church an opportunity to serve,” Evers said.
While most people don’t readily volunteer to serve, he said, “once you get them and they find out they enjoy doing it they are more likely to do it again.”
-- Kevin Brady is a freelance writer based in the Tampa area.