Gifts of Kindness
Element Nazarene in Lake Nona touches lives through the Christmas House
Be kind and compassionate to one another… Ephesians 4:32 a (NIV)
When Nancy* walked into the Christmas House, a free ministry to families in need sponsored by Element Church of the Nazarene in Lake Nona, she didn’t know what to expect. All she knew was that Christmas was going to be difficult this year. Over the past two years, family illness and medical expenses had cost them their home. They’d never dreamed they’d be living in a hotel room with their six children and a grandchild. The needs are overwhelming. But then she’d received an invitation to the Christmas House.
“When she walked in, she had tears in her eyes,” remembers coordinator Tiffany Johnson. ”She kept asking how we could do this.”
The church, which meets in the Lake Nona YMCA, received names of families through local public schools and the Y itself. Described as a shopping experience for families in need, Pastor Jeremy Johnson and his wife, Tiffany, have coordinated the Christmas House ministry while serving in various churches — a concept they first learned when attending a church in Tennessee. This is the ministry’s first year in Lake Nona.
Families receive an invitation to attend the Christmas House at a specific time, and arrive in half-hour intervals. The schedule creates a more peaceful atmosphere, and allows for personal attention.
Nancy’s children were taken to “Winter Wonder Land”, where volunteers led them in games, crafts, and decorating Christmas cookies. Other volunteers told the Biblical Christmas story. The children were able to select gifts for their parents, which they wrapped with supervision from teens and adults. Children and teens from the church interacted with Nancy’s kids, forming new relationships.
Nancy was assigned a Personal Shopper, Gwen*, who assisted her throughout her visit to the Christmas House. Nancy could choose three gifts for each child from the hundreds that were donated by church members and community partners. Volunteers had sorted and arranged the toys by age and gender.
Next, another team wrapped Nancy’s gifts while Gwen took her to the cafe, for brunch and a time of sharing. As they talked, Nancy told her story, and Gwen listened and took note of needs and prayer requests. Personal Shoppers pray with each visitor assigned to them. They are trained beforehand, and commit to follow up with their clients. “How can we help further?” is an important question they ask that day.
“We want to be family for them, because many have no family,” says Tiffany. “God has given me a passion for these families — we could just as easily be in their shoes.”
Some folks came and went, but others stayed in the cafe, sharing their stories. “They don’t always have someone to talk to about what they’re facing, “ Tiffany says. “One person told me they felt like they’d been in a counseling session.”
When it comes time to leave, there are smiles and hugs all around — and often tears. Families are sent home with a food basket and a car loaded with gifts. But that’s not the end of the story for the Christmas House.
“We do what we can to help with the needs expressed that day” says Tiffany. “Sometimes it’s as simple as getting a Christmas tree. It may be helping to find employment or mattresses for the kids.”
The Christmas House correspondence team keeps in touch with the visitors even after the holidays.
“We throw a quarterly birthday party for the children, because the families often can’t afford to celebrate birthdays.” Volunteers organize a birthday lunch, providing gifts and a devotional time. Tiffany estimates half of the Christmas House visitors return for the birthday celebrations.
“We want to keep in touch,” she explains. “This is not just a one-time thing. We want to build relationships.”
More than 50 volunteers helped make the Christmas House a reality this year. They served 25 families, including 76 children. Community partners provided food and water for the team. As one person said, “What a great day, serving Christ through Christmas House!”
A Christmas House family attended the worship service at Element church the following Sunday, according to Tiffany.
“Our Personal Shopper told us that we can get through these times with God’s help,” they said. “We want to learn more about that.”
*Not their real names.