Churches Answer Christmas Call

Parishioners drop off gifts for the angel tree before a Sunday morning service at Church of the Nativity in Burke. Ornaments such as the one at left tell church members what to buy.
Parishioners drop off gifts for the angel tree before a Sunday morning service at Church of the Nativity in Burke. Ornaments such as the one at left tell church members what to buy. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Worshipers at Floris United Methodist Church of Herndon don't hold back when it comes time to pony up for the annual Christmas Eve collection for charity.

Last year, they deposited more than $240,000 in collection plates for programs to help those in need. This year, church leaders are hoping for a similar haul, which they plan to distribute to several charitable causes with local and overseas missions.

"The whole idea is that maybe we should put a little less into what goes under the tree and put a little more into programs that will help people in need," said Sarah Newman, who directs the church's nonprofit organization, which is coordinating the collection.

Cash for charities, angel trees, adopt-a-family programs, food baskets, coat collections: This is the time of the year when churches pour out their generosity. Unlike Thanksgiving programs, which often focus on food collections and mass meals, charitable efforts at Christmas often are more intimate, ministers say. They focus on individual families reaching out to other families, even when such efforts are anonymous, as a way to draw community members together.

One of the most popular programs among local churches is the angel tree. Local nonprofit groups collect lists of holiday needs and wishes from children and their families and write each family's requests on individual tags or ornaments. The tags are hung on trees in churches. Families then take the tags, buy the items listed and return them to the church, where they are sent to the nonprofit group for distribution.

At McLean Bible Church, angel trees are expected to yield 3,500 presents for kids this year. Floris expects 2,000.

"It's the kind of thing that is tangible," said the Rev. Doug Jones, senior pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Herndon, which will collect gifts for about 200 families this year. The presents will go to immigrant families in Herndon, older residents who live in subsidized apartments in Reston and to those who take classes in the church's English as a Second Language program.

"You can do it as a family," Jones said. "You can talk about what you're going to get as a family. You can talk about 'well, I'm . . . 3 years old, and what would I want to give another 3-year-old?' "

Church of the Nativity in Burke accepts wish lists from Martha's Table (a D.C. nonprofit group), the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Hispanic Outreach and Catholic Charities. Students in Nativity's school write the lists on paper ornaments that they hang on trees in the church and in the school, Principal Maria Kelly said.

"When your name is Nativity, you kind of have to do a little more at Christmas," she said.

Fairfax Community Church in Fairfax County has a homegrown angel tree. It is collecting holiday wishes from the 45 kids in its Study Buddies program, an after-school tutoring program for homeless and at-risk children and teens in Fairfax City. The church will have parties to wrap the 200 or so items it expects to receive.

Church members are bringing in such popular items as iPods, video-game players, bicycles and other "very special items that they otherwise wouldn't dream of getting," said Valerie Dickson, who works in the church's outreach ministry.

Like some churches, Dickson said Fairfax Community focuses its holiday generosity on programs that it supports year-round. For example, it is collecting money to send to an orphanage in Zambia that it supports. Staff members there will use the money to buy gifts and have a party for the 52 children at the home.

"We try to build the mind-set of 'We're here to serve year-round,' " Dickson said. "We really do try to work with our existing partners."

Other churches focus on helping whoever shows up, literally, at their door. At Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, members collect cash, gift cards and food to give to those who approach the church for help at this time of year, church administrator Jennifer Sharp said.

"You begin to realize that is the reason that God calls us together in these little things called churches," Jones, of Holy Cross, said. "It's because, working together, we can do so much more than what we can do individually."

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