Christmas “thieves” benefit communities

California churches share ideas to better serve their respective communities

Neighborhood Church, a USMB congregation in Visalia, California, partners each year with a local elementary school to sponsor a Christmas store where parents can purchase toys and other gifts for their children. Photo: Neighborhood Church

Stephanie Benthin feels perfectly fine about stealing. And what’s more, she’s thrilled when people steal ideas from her—especially for Christmas. Benthin is missional strategist for Neighborhood Church, a USMB congregation in Visalia, Calif. She has no qualms about stealing ideas from others in her effort to further the church’s impact in their community.

In partnership with nearby Houston Elementary School, she organizes an annual Christmas store where low-income parents can buy gifts for their children. Church members donate toys and serve volunteer at the event.

She readily admits that she initially stole the Christmas store idea from two other sources—a church she read about in a news article and a local man who was doing it on his own in Visalia. It was just the solution she was looking for as part of Neighborhood Church’s larger effort to serve Houston School.

Now in its eighth year, Neighborhood Church hosts about 130 families who buy gifts for their children at discounted prices from a big selection of new donated toys in a festive Christmas store.

The next theft of the Christmas store idea was sparked by an item about Neighborhood Church’s store among the news notes at the back of Christian Leader magazine.

Melissa Bergen, an MB pastor in Shafter, Calif., with a role similar to Benthin’s, and fellow church member Katie Wiebe had been reading Bob Lupton’s Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life—Rethinking Ministry to the Poor. Visalia’s Christmas store was just the kind of empowering sharing of resources that Lupton was promoting. This was an idea worth stealing.

Bergen contacted Benthin to learn more about the event. They discovered they had similar concerns. Both had felt uncomfortable with previous Christmas adopt-a-family giving projects in which church members bought toys and other gifts and delivered them to low-income families.

“When we brought the items to the home, the parents sometimes disappeared,” Bergen recalls. “We were taking away a parent’s pride and saying to the children that we can take care of them and their parents can’t.”

Benthin adds, “What we were doing was motivated by good things, we just needed to change the mechanism.”

Gift wrapping is one of nine different tasks people can volunteer for at the Neighborhood Church Christmas store. Photo: Neighborhood Church

In Shafter, Bergen had been talking with Brittaney Neal-Soberanis, City of Shafter’s project manager, about the possibility of mobilizing their community’s service organizations, churches and businesses together in a Christmas outreach for low-income families. Neal-Soberanis had also had some “not-so-positive experiences” with an adopt-a-family program. The Neighborhood Church plan gave them an appealing alternative.

Neighborhood Church had training resources for nine different volunteer tasks including soliciting donations, sorting and counting gifts, cashiering, hosting and wrapping and even taxiing people who didn’t have their own transportation.

“We switched to this model seven years ago so we’ve developed all kinds of systems,” Benthin says. “I dropped all our documents in the Google Drive for [Shafter].”

The Google Drive documents, accessible via the internet, along with conference calls and group texts have been a gold mine for Bergen, Wiebe and Neal-Soberanis as they make plans for Shafter’s first Christmas store in December.

“We’ll basically be using their entire methodology of how to run the event,” Neal-Soberanis says.

In August, at the Shafter group’s one face-to-face meeting with Benthin, she came with two full pages of questions.

“We went through them line-by-line and got answers about the practical running of the event as well as overarching questions like how to explain it in a way that doesn’t demean or diminish past efforts. It was incredibly helpful,” says Neal-Soberanis

The resources shared are also key for Shafter’s Christmas store group as they tap other community members to get involved. As of September, the Chamber of Commerce had agreed to provide the umbrella non-profit status for donations, a business and a church had offered to serve as collection points, Healthy Start (a social service program of the city) agreed to identify the low-income participant families and several civic clubs were waiting to see how they could get involved.

“We haven’t even done anything yet, but we’re super-excited,” says Bergen.

The Christmas Store organizers in Visalia and Shafter agree: in ministry, sometimes stealing is exactly the right thing to do.

View this video about the Shafter Christmas store:

Visit the Shafter Christmas Store Facebook page:




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