The Advent and Christmas season is a time of preparation and celebration of the Christ child, and to be honest, to shop! I know, I know – the secular world is stealing the meaning of Christmas – BUT – what if a community could connect people to real meaning through the traditional act of shopping? Read on to see what started as a Christmas garage sale ten years ago.
Jill Schmidt, a restaurant owner and a United Methodist in Geneva, Nebraska, wanted to connect people who needed affordable gifts and necessities with people who could donate lightly used goods at this time of year. Originally, the Christmas garage sale was held at her restaurant. It was such a hit that it kept growing. That wasn’t the only thing that grew.
Jill’s imagination kept growing too as she asked herself and the planning team what God might want to do with this. “All of us are in need,” Jill said, “whether for basic needs – or the need to know Christ – we are all in need.” So Jill began to dream how these needs could be enhanced by the love of God and community. She knew that they needed more space, needed to reach more people and needed more community support.
The space issue was answered by asking the Geneva United Methodist Church to host the event. Jill knew that the many children and families didn’t even get a chance to shop for gifts due to low incomes, with many years going by with nothing under the tree. So the garage sale adapted into The Christmas Store. Along with the move, many churches and community volunteers donated their time, donations, and labor because this thing was the “real deal” when it came to the Christmas Spirit.
And that leads us to what happened on Dec. 13, 2014, for this year’s Christmas Store (open on the second Saturday of every December).
A line of families with children waited outside Geneva United Methodist Church, stretching all the way down the block. Families greeted many of the volunteers arriving to meet in the sanctuary for a devotion lead by Jill before opening the store. This year’s theme for Jill’s devotion was “Don’t grow weary,” which was a helpful reminder with such a large crowd of shoppers.
As families entered the church, volunteers greeted them and “checked in” the children with identification stickers. Once assigned a shopping volunteer, each child entered the store where baskets upon baskets of donated items were neatly packaged, ready for them to “buy” for their families.
After they picked out their items, the children took them to the wrapping room where young women from the pre-release work center greeted them with smiles! The teens were glad to be there helping young shoppers wrap their gifts. Assisted by adults, it was beautiful as the teens helped young children make their treasures look extra-special.
While their children shopped and wrapped their gifts, parents went next door to the Congregational church to shop for necessities like toothbrushes, household goods and some clothing items. They met up with their children in the sanctuary to get their photo taken by a professional photographer with Sanctuary Santa. For many, this was the first professional photo they had ever had taken.
By the time the store closed at 1 p.m., 200 children and their families shopped from 18 counties, from Nebraska and Kansas. Not a single gift was left. Every child went to school the next week, grinning ear to ear and sharing shopping stories with schoolmates as they got all got ready for Christmas break.
You would think that Jill would have taken a break. But no, she’s already thinking of ways to improve the experience for next year. She’s not alone as many volunteers start shopping the bargains this year for next year’s store.
I asked Jill what is the most rewarding part of this whole event for her. She said, “Seeing those kids grinning with packages as they head out the door, especially since it is the door of the church! We see families actually come back who were in line the year before. They feel the excitement, the love, the service and the joy! Kids brag about the things they bought to friends at school. Everyone deserves to be loved, and we all feel that love together on that day.”
I had a grin cross my face as I heard this. I pictured the children and families opening the gifts on Christmas, remembering the buildings they were in, the people they met and the sanctuary that housed the coming together of families. I know they may not all understand the real meaning of Christmas: the Christ Child coming to the earth. But I can’t help believe that they have a better chance.
Jill said, “Getting them into the church, to the shop, to see Santa, is a means of getting them into the church to know Christ, the free gift that we all need.”
Questions to Ponder:
To learn more about the Christmas Store and how you might help or start one in your own community – please contact Jill Schmidt at firstname.lastname@example.org