By Brett Hetherington*
This year of social distancing, mask-wearing and stay-at-home advisories has left many with little hope – especially at a time of year when bright lights, cheerful music, and the hustle and bustle of family gatherings would normally bring laughter and merriment. With Christmas coming in such a different manner this year, the people of one church in the East Ohio Conference set out to offer some hope to the community.
“We had a Leadership Team meeting, and afterward we had some conversations with people. Our Trustees chair had a suggestion that we just could not pass up,” said the Rev. Laura Jaissle, associate pastor of Lakewood United Methodist Church (North Coast District).
That gentleman is Kevin Cornell, and he shared that in the meeting the idea of how the church might make Christmas special this year was a central point of discussion, and that the church wanted to help offer hope and Christmas cheer to the community of Lakewood.
“From there we decided to call it ‘Trees of Hope,’” Jaissle shared.
People in the congregation were invited to adopt a tree and come up with a theme for how to decorate it. There are currently 30 decorated Christmas trees of hope on the front lawn of the church. Some are decorated to provide joy simply because of the bright colors or shiny ornaments on the trees’ branches. Other trees are meant to give joy and hope in a more tangible way.
“One member suggested a giving tree where we could place items that people might need and people in the community could come and take them off the tree,” Jaissle said. “People in the community called asking if they could donate for the trees, and I said, ‘go out and put it on the tree!’” Cornell added that the resulting Giving Tree is located near the front sidewalk and the church sign, and features primarily scarves, mittens, masks and gloves – each in bags to protect them from the weather.
There are trees with toys for children, a tree with PPE as decorations (and some that can be taken and used), and even a tree full of handmade ornaments that will feed hungry birds and squirrels. “Even the birds need some joy,” shared that tree’s designer Mary Ann Ratica.
The number of trees on the front lawn of Lakewood UMC is greater than originally intended. The response was so great and so many families in the congregation desired to participate that the Trustees sought out more trees. “It was all very organic,” said Jaissle. “I e-mailed a bunch of people, Kevin found the trees, and the congregation stepped up and adopted all of these trees.”
One tree adoptee found herself doing so much more. Julia Toke has loved decorating Christmas trees for as long as she can remember. Her birthday is weeks before Christmas but one of the year’s that she was in college she received a live Christmas tree to decorate as a birthday present.
“I was super excited,” she said. “Outside activities are hard to come by right now, so it is important to get outside and try to stay social. It is even more difficult for me to stay social because I am high-risk. I love The United Methodist Church because it is so community-focused and there are so many community outreach ministries. I was very involved before everything shut down.”
Toke created the signs that are placed in front of each tree, identifying which family, group, or individual has adopted that tree. She was able to craft them over a single weekend and was intentional about creating something that would last.
The community has responded very positively to the efforts of the Lakewood UMC congregation to bring hope this Christmas. Friends of Jaissle who live close to the church building have thanked her for offering something this year. “Everything was cancelled this year because of COVID,” she said. “Normally we have a big ‘Light Up Lakewood” here in town, but we couldn’t even do that. But this perhaps can let us be that to the community this year.”
Toke has friends who have been excitedly sharing pictures of the scene on their social media accounts and even asked if they could adopt a tree of their own. The church even received a call from a shop across the street when the large “HOPE” and “JOY” signs were first erected.
“It was the morning after they put the word “hope” up. I called and told them how beautiful and meaningful it was and that I loved the message. Absolutely beautiful,” shared Suzanne Bednarchik, owner of The Quilting Bee.
Even in a year where people are encouraged to be socially distant this outreach has provided the opportunity to find ways to regain a sense of community. “People got to see each other from a distance as they were putting trees up, it really brought a small sense of community,” shared Jaissle. She then shared that the new tradition even welcomed in some new faces the church has not seen before. “There were some families who joined our church online this year and this was their first activity with the church!”
Trees of Hope has already brought great hope and joy to the community of Lakewood in the short amount of time it has existed. It has also brought hope to those who have been involved in bringing it to life.
“This year was really dark. The holidays – no matter what tradition you see – is all about lighting through that darkness,” shared Toke. “When I was making those signs, I was thinking about the years this will go on, five years, 10 years – and the hope this will bring out of the dark times we have. Our pastor has said from the pulpit he is sorry for all those who have been hurt by the church. I have been hurt by the church in the past. I appreciate that message. We need that hope. The base of Methodist theology is to love thy neighbor and love God. This exemplifies that without proselytizing.”
Jaissle offered her own perspective on how Trees of Hope has impacted her life so far this Christmas season.
“It has given me as a pastor going into Advent and Christmas hope to have these trees out here, reminding me of what we can do together and how we can be the church in the community. It has given me that hope that I’ve needed. We’re going on nine months now of our COVID restrictions, and as a church we didn’t open up until October. And even then, we were limited in who we could let in and two weeks later we were forced to shut back down. We haven’t truly had worship together in nine months,” she said. “But Christmas isn’t cancelled. Its’ still happening. We’re just finding new ways to do it.”
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.