By Rick Wolcott*
Bright sunshine and 50-degree weather greeted dozens of volunteers in Canton on December 11 as they transformed the Edward Peel Coleman Center parking lot into the “Unforgettable Christmas” store.
“Today we’re celebrating Christmas, Kwanza, and Hannukah for anyone and everyone who is looking to celebrate the holidays,” said Canton Mayor Tom Bernabei. “God blessed us with a beautiful day, which is great because we could not have had this otherwise because of COVID. We couldn’t have had this event indoors.”
With the fate of this year’s Christmas giveaway uncertain, Ward 4 Councilwoman Chris Smith reached out to the Rev. Don Ackerman of Crossroads UMC (Tuscarawas District) in Canton because the two have collaborated on community projects in the past.
“I reached out to him and just like that he said, ‘it’s done, you’ve got our help,’” Smith shared. “I can’t believe out of that one conversation all of this happened.”
“The giveaway started with a couple hundred and grew to over 800,” said Pastor Michael Farmer, associate pastor of Crossroads UMC and pastor of The Vine UMC (Tuscarawas District) in Alliance, who is in charge of the Tuscarawas Urban Action Team and has also worked with Smith in the past.
“We started working to help 120 people, that’s what Michael and Don and I talked about – and look at this. God works. We just need to step out of the way and let Him do it,” added the Rev. Rebecca Evanoff, pastor of Fairhope UMC and Lexington UMC (both in the Tuscarawas District), as she placed hats and hoodies on one of the tables.
Ackerman shared that between a group of United Methodist churches and one non-denominational church they raised $8,000 in just a couple of days and had collected over 1,000 new children’s toys. Those toys were organized by age groups and placed on more than a dozen tables, which were spaced out across the parking lot to allow for physical distancing of families and the volunteers who assisted them. Those selecting gifts were admitted six at a time into the area where the tables were. There they got to choose from toys, games, NFL team plushies provided by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, clothes, food and more.
Just before noon Skyler Parks addressed the dozens of families who had gathered for the first come first serve event that lasted all afternoon. The youth development coordinator of the Edward Peel Coleman Center said, “You can receive up to five items per child. You get one gift, one miscellaneous item, one board game, one hat, and one hoodie or coat per child.”
No one needed to sign up in advance to attend and no one had to prove how little or how much they have. The event was open to anyone, but Smith said that organizers worked closely with the families and the schools of the ward she serves on the southeast side of Canton.
“We have a huge transient rate as people are moving in and out of housing. There’s a lot of need down here. Food and transportation are always an issue,” offered Christen Sedmock, principal of Patrick Elementary School next door to the community center. “I have a very strong passion for the people of the southeast end of Canton and am just really dedicated in trying and improve this end of town.” That dedication led her to start a non-profit organization called Feed Kids First, which had a truck at the event passing out food to those who needed it.
“You have a history of redlining in this area, you have a history of systemic racism, you have a history of minority-owned businesses being kicked out of the area. There’s no grocery store. You have two corner markets. This is a food desert,” Farmer said. “Both congregations that I serve participated both in financial giving and collecting toys and hats and gloves and they really see this as kingdom work building up the kingdom of God. So, it’s been really well received.”
“My church is always looking for missions and ways to be active in the community,” said Evanoff. “The congregation was excited about doing something new and different especially in this year when we can’t do the things we normally would do. They showed up in huge ways with donations and toys and wrapping paper and some are helping out here today.”
“People want a way to give. When we give it lifts everybody up and it lifts us, too,” said Teresa Purses of Faith UMC (Tuscarawas District) in North Canton. “Yes, this is a giveaway but its bigger than that. It’s also about creating opportunity and access for everyone.”
“This is not toxic charity or white savior it’s not a handout it’s a hand up,” added Farmer.
“Even though 2020 has been hard Jesus proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor a long time ago and if there’s anything that the church needs to realize it’s that we are a people who continually and perpetually proclaim that even in spite of hard circumstances. It’s jubilee year,” said Ackerman.
“We are so very, very grateful to The United Methodist Church and the churches that have provided hundreds and hundreds of gifts through their ministries that will benefit families in this community,” Bernabei said. “Partnerships with churches and other community groups is absolutely vital because none of us can do everything on our own.”
Farmer said that looking around the parking lot at the smiles on the faces of children and adults was a “small glimpse of the end of our Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
“This is a slice of heaven. Young, old, black, white, rich, poor and everything in between. Masters’ degrees and Ph.D. and those who didn’t even graduate from high school all coming together to show love to the community and that’s what church should be for,” he said.
Dawn Myer gets groceries once a month from Crossroads UMC. When she heard about the Christmas giveaway, she came for gifts for her family, but she also asked how she could help.
“This is amazing. I can’t believe it. I just showed up and I had an hour so I asked if there is anything I can do because I like to help and give back a little bit. A lot’s been given to me over my life. My life is kind of a blessing. It’s always good to give back because a lot of people have been there to help me.”
“This is a great help for my kids for Christmas or they wouldn’t be getting much this year due to the pandemic because work is slow for everybody. I am grateful to be able to put something under the Christmas tree instead of nothing,” said Lisa Cooper, who was first in line and arrived more than an hour before the event so she could get gifts for her four children. “The support of this community means everything without it sometimes you can’t get anywhere. So, it’s really nice that people got together and are helping people who are in need at this time of the year.”
“This means that my child will get something for Christmas, and I appreciate it. I am thankful that people care about one another,” said Tamala Smith, who was looking for gifts for her 16-year-old son and her 2-year-old granddaughter.
“I’ve lived in this area since 1965 I understand the wants and the needs of this community and it’s been so rewarding when community partners can get together and just give back in such a way as this,” Smith said with pride.
“There are more than enough resources in this town to make sure that every kid and every family has a good Christmas,” Farmer said.
“When you look around and you see all these people come together to help and support others it takes my breath away,” said Sedmock.
Evanoff said the message modeled by the Christmas giveaway is one that we should each to try to replicate on a daily basis.
“The churches and the community can work together to show God’s love and build the kingdom in everything that we do if we work together. Look at this. Look at this!”
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 me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.