Two years ago, I celebrated my first Christmas with the El Crucero children. Our fledgling ministry was less than 5 months old at the time, and I was definitely swimming in unchartered waters.
That first December, I was pretty surprised to discover that almost none of the children knew the meaning and purpose of Christmas. They had never heard of Mary and Joseph. They were completely unfamiliar with the nativity scene. They had never been told that Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’ birthday.
I was almost giddy with the joy of sharing the Christmas story with them. We spent three weeks getting from Elizabeth and Zechariah all the way to the wise men. We made nativity crafts and sang religious Christmas carols. I planned a party and goody bags for the Sunday before Christmas.
In the midst of this, I was told that my children had been invited to be participants in the Elk Club’s annual party and toy give-away. I was put in charge of signing children up. We were given 60 slots and it was my job to fill those slots with names and ages and to assign the children numbers. Word got out and attendance at our Sunday night program suddenly (and temporarily) exploded.
Somehow, I had been turned into the “gate-keeper.” I got invited to attend the party with my children not only as their chaperone, but as their proof of admittance. I held the decisive list of who was to be included.
The party was something of a surreal experience for me. For the first time, I felt that I belonged to the group of recipients. I didn’t know the givers, but I cared greatly for the receivers. I watched the children be lined up by age and gender and then, one at a time, be handed a random item from the pile of donated gifts. I saw Ivan’s disappointment when he was handed an educational board game. I felt embarrassed for 2nd-grade Carlos* who was handed a plastic guitar meant for a preschooler. I didn’t know how to respond when Nayeli asked me if she could trade her toy for a different one. In the end, there were more gifts than children and kids were allowed to swap out for something different. I think they all went home basically happy, but I left feeling pretty ambiguous about the experience.
I believe that Christmas at El Crucero last year would have been largely a repeat of the previous year if it had not been for a set of extenuating circumstances that resulted in our group losing our spot in the Elk’s party. We were a week or so into December when I learned that we were not to be included. I had already been getting inquiries about when the Elks party would be and when I would start assigning numbers, so I felt responsible to find a solution.
I immediately concocted a plan.
El Crucero would have its own present distribution! I was instantly excited by the idea. We knew the children. We could get them quality presents that they actually wanted. We wouldn’t turn them into numbers on a sheet or hand them a randomly donated toy. We would buy specifically for them. We would make them feel special and important.
The very next Sunday, I announced that we were not going to the Elks party but that we would be giving out gifts at our Christmas party this year. Then I began playing Santa. I went from small group to small group asking the children what kinds of things they wanted. I didn’t promise specifics, but I made a list of all their answers (and corresponding names, when applicable). I learned that 5-year-old Brianna wanted a Minnie Mouse dress and that Rosa wanted a Little Mermaid costume. I learned that little Josue wanted a megapack of toy cars. I learned that many of the older boys wanted wrestling action figures and that John Cena was the most coveted figure of all. I learned that 5th grade Cynthia wanted clothes and that Amy wanted size 4 Nike tennis shoes (any color).
It was glorious fun buying presents for 70 children. I had raised enough money to spend about $20 per child, and my friends and I shopped the season’s deals to get the best items for the price. My dining room soon looked like a toy store. My 3-year-old daughter would go in and stare with great wonder at the wall full of dolls.
I planned the 2-hour party to include gift making, a sit-down dinner, a short talk from a guest speaker, and a turn for each child to go in the gift room and select his or her own toy.
I meticulously plotted out the evening, trying to plan for every eventuality and writing a down-to-the-minute schedule. I knew I couldn’t perfectly predict how many or which children would come, so I made my best guess and over bought, saving receipts to return the extra gifts afterward. I thought we were prepared and I happily looked forward to the night.
However, very little went according to my plan. Some of my volunteers didn’t show up. The gift-making turned into chaos. The talk ran longer than expected. Because many of my regular helpers weren’t available that close to Christmas, I had supplemented with substitutes who didn’t know the children and were soon overwhelmed trying to shepherd such a crowd. My carefully orchestrated schedule went out the window.
Near the end of the party, children that I didn’t know (and by that time I knew A LOT of children) started pouring in from the streets hoping to get a gift. I didn’t want to turn anyone away so I let them in, but somehow a couple of our regular children had failed to be sent in to me at their appointed times and missed getting anything at all. Faithful Yoana missed getting the scooter she had wanted. Sweet-faced Juan left in tears. Juan—the little boy whose alcoholic father is so scary that Juan won’t venture home until someone confirms that his mom is there.
I had failed. I am not Santa, and I am certainly not God, and I had failed to make all of my children feel loved and special. As my volunteers began to clean up the outer room, I laid my head on the now-bare table that had so shortly before been overflowing with toys, and I cried.
Around the turn of this past year, I began to feel defeated and burned out. I wanted to step down from my leadership role at El Crucero for a while, but God didn’t let me.
I prayed. I asked around. No one was willing to take my place, so instead of stepping down, I restructured. I gave the 4 small groups more autonomy and delegated more responsibility to their leaders.
I also began a quest to learn how to minister better to the children.
After reading a slew of books, articles and blogs on ministering to the poor, the plight of immigrants, and Christian community development, I have undergone some important paradigm shifts. As I’ve shared some of my new perspectives with my El Crucero team, we’ve all set out to once again reinvent how we celebrate Christmas.
This past Sunday, each small group had its own Christmas party. The parties for the older children were held in private homes, one hosting the girls and another hosting the boys. (The youngest children stayed at the church for their party.) For 2 or 3 weeks leading up to the parties, we passed out personal invitations to the children in our own groups to make it as personal as possible. We also decided that all of the parties would involve making or preparing something that the children could give to their families.
And we agreed that whatever gifts we gave would be handed out equally to everyone, both neighborhood children and the volunteers’ children. There was to be no distinction made between the “poor kids” and the “rich kids.” The gifts were not acts of charity, but expressions of love from the leaders to the children in their groups, regardless of their color or economic status.
All of the parties were a huge success. The boys had a “manly” party where they ate grilled hamburgers and spicy chicken wings, painted a “manly” gift for their families and had a jousting competition on a huge inflatable. The girls decorated ornaments with glitter and glue, created a Christmas tray of goodies for their parents, and ate a full Christmas dinner. The youngest children played games, ate pizza and made crafts. Gifts were given, leaders and kids had fun together and beautiful memories were made.
But Christmas at El Crucero isn’t over. By having our parties early, we have left next Sunday open to try something frighteningly different– a children’s Christmas program. As part of our reinvention of the El Crucero Christmas, we are moving the final focus away from gifts and candy and back to Jesus. I have acquired costumes, assigned roles and have told the children to invite their families next Sunday night. It will probably be the least rehearsed kids Christmas show in all of history, but I’m happy that we will be spending our last Sunday before Christmas presenting the real meaning of the holiday together.
So stay tuned for El Crucero’s very own “best Christmas pageant ever.”
*All names have been changed for the privacy of the children.