Redeemer Austin has been blessed so that we can be a blessing. In October, our ministry staff was busy planning all of the Christmas events that take place on our campus every year and they were very hopeful that our Christmas concerts could take place in our new Commons auditorium, which was still under construction at that point. In the midst of focusing on all of these details, someone asked what was being planned to show the love of Christ to our neighborhood in addition to all of our traditional activities. The answer was nothing. And it convicted everyone involved.
We have a wonderful relationship with Wooten Elementary School next door to our property. We have been teaching ESL classes there for years and are mentoring 4th and 5th graders through programs called Academy4 and Leaders5. Each child has one on one mentoring and activities each month on a Friday afternoon. So, it was natural that we would approach the principal and his staff to see if there was any way we could bless the school children this Christmas. The answer was a quick yes. We are in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and over 90% of the students qualify for breakfast and lunch programs, meaning that most families would have a difficult time with Christmas presents this year. He asked for our help in that regard. We were just as quick in saying yes, we have a very big God and He will make it happen somehow. As more thought was given to addressing this need, we realized that most of the children we hoped to help had siblings and that we would need to take care of them also.
Plans came together very rapidly. We enlisted nearly 300 volunteers from the church and the surrounding neighborhood and all were background checked, since we would be dealing with children and wanted to treat them with the same level of security as we do our school children at Redeemer and as the Austin Independent School District also expects. We also decided to make the program one in which the participating families would opt in, removing any possible objections some might have to a blurring of the lines between church and state. Another choice was made to use the public park adjacent to the school and make it a huge outdoor event, which meant we would need to get all of the necessary permits and meet all of the requirements that this would entail. One key component of our plan was to shop for the gifts that each family requested rather than a one size fits all approach. This required large teams of volunteer shoppers to complete this task. The best part of our approach was that we were going to let the parents be the heroes on Christmas morning. During the festivities at the park, we would arrange for one of the parents to sneak off and pick up the gifts for their family so they could get them to the trunks of their cars unbeknownst to the children. None of the children would be any wiser.
Many miracles happened over the next two months. We figured about 1,000 heavy duty garbage bags would be required for the gifts. When the big box store found out what they were for, they donated 1200 of them. When a professional event planner heard what we were doing, she volunteered to oversee the whole project, using her talents and many connections with the city and the vendors we would need for everything from a hot cocoa booth to inflatable games to large tents to lighting to you name it. Wrapping paper was donated and so were hundreds of teddy bears. T-shirts for every member of each family appeared from Thrivent Financial, which also helped with matching grants for our donations. It was just amazing to see the way people's hearts were moved when they realized what we were doing.
Even after all the preparations had been made, it took two days to get things ready for show time. On Monday, a 6 foot fence was put in place around the perimeter of the park so that only participants and volunteers would be admitted. We hired a security firm to help with keeping an eye on things overnight after much of the lighting, tents and electrical had been installed. I was one of three photographers that volunteered to not only document the event, but also the setup, with the idea that we could show our donors what went into conducting an event this large and to show them that their trust in us was well placed. In the process of getting my pictures, I was able to explain to vendor after vendor what the big picture of the event was. Many times, their eyes would get big when they heard that this was all being done in a Secret Santa sort of way and they realized that this would strengthen each family we touched. It also had a big impact on all of the volunteers involved as they discovered a lesson I had learned during my mission work in Africa. It's called God's economy. When you get out of the boat to help somebody in His name, He wants to bless BOTH the giver and the receiver abundantly. It never fails. Those who never get out of their comfort zone to serve others seem to think that somehow it is going to cost them something. Just the opposite occurs, the blessings to all involved are beyond putting a value on.
At the end of the day on Monday, as the sun set, I was hanging around to see how much light we would have for the Night of Hope event Tuesday night. I wanted to know if we would need flash units or if the large number of LED lights would be enough. Unfortunately, the power never did get turned on and I let the other photographers know that we had to be prepared for either way.
Tuesday morning, volunteers began to arrive to begin setting up tables, small Christmas trees, etc. in the park and in our church parking lot across the street. We had four large PODS, like movers use, full of the gifts, ready to go. Each would be lit up with a different color in the evening. A family member would come to retrieve their gifts with a ticket that might say Purple-85-3, which meant their gifts were in the purple POD, they were family number 85 and they had 3 children that there were bags for. The attention to detail and planning that this all took was phenomenal and it all worked out very well.
Around 5 o'clock, the volunteers began to come to check in and get wrist bands showing that they had been vetted. They then each went to their assigned areas to finish any last minutes details. Besides inflatable games, there was a Nativity scene where people could hear the story of Christmas, a large tent with entertainment focusing on the Christmas story, we had professional face painters for the children (and some adults!) and Santa made an appearance and each child got to have their picture taken with him by a pro photographer. Each child will have their photo mailed to them. Cool!
The whole evening was a blessing. We had not only gotten volunteers from Redeemer, but also from the neighborhood. My friend Lupe, the owner of Casa Chapala Mexican Cantina supplied great food for the volunteers and a Mariachi band for some local cultural flavor. We had many translators there as well, to help where needed and quite a few teachers and staff from Wooten were on hand as well. A local TV station even came to report on Night of Hope. I'm expecting that our ties to our local community will continue to be strengthened as a result of this event. In my mind, I see a pebble being thrown into a still pond and the ripples emanating out for along time. Thank you, Jesus!
To see pictures of the event, here are a couple of links to online albums.
Night of Hope pictures by Dave DeVore
Here are a collection of photos from all three photographers at Redeemer's Facebook page:
Redeemer Austin Night of Hope photos