As a YAV I work with many non-profit organizations (as YAV itself is a non-profit organization) and these organizations each have numerous Christmas traditions. And, I was invited to take part in ALL the festivities. It really reminded me that Christmas can be hard for a lot of families who have little and can be sad for families who have lost loved ones. But, there can be joy found around every corner in the month of December.
I would like to start by stating that Christmas is not always my favorite holiday - my favorite is definitely Thanksgiving because its sole focus is on food and good company. I often feel caught up in the present buying and feel that the focus is directed at the commercial side of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, in no way am I anti-Christmas. For me, Christmas just comes with high expectation and standards. But this Christmas, I was reminded of the many joys that Christmas has to share and I would like to share 12 of them with you.
Disclaimer: these are all events that would have happened regardless of my presence in NOLA. I was simply invited to take part in these events and wanted to share with you a snap-shot of the generosity and kindness that I saw this holiday season. Nearly all of them are annual traditions. It was a true blessing to watch these events unfold knowing that the people in this city were seeking to help one another. They were a true inspiration.
1: Thanksgiving Grocery Shopping
While this event did not take part in December, it was an awesome event to be a part of and I want to share with you my experience. Prior to Thanksgiving, the children who attend the tutoring program I work at prepared a taco dinner for the general public. This taco dinner was a fundraiser and any funds they earned went to buying groceries for 3 families to prepare a special Thanksgiving dinner. After the taco dinner, we took about 10 kids to a local grocery store and they got to buy groceries for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (whatever the kids believed a ‘traditional’ turkey dinner consisted of). After shopping, we delivered the meal to the 3 families. Joy was spread from the children to the families.
2: The Gingerbread Breakfast
Forty families from Lakeview Presbyterian Church (the church I work at) and Lakeview Presbyterian Weekday School (the preschool next door) came together to decorate Gingerbread houses! This event was solely filled with fun! It included a Holiday Market where local small business owners had items for purchase. The children filled their stomachs with sugar and Santa Clause made a visit. This event brought together a community to partake in a joyous holiday tradition together.
3: Angel Tree
Lakeview Presbyterian Church partnered with the Presbyterian Children’s home and provided a special Christmas for over 25 children in the city of New Orleans. Over 2 weeks in December, I witnessed a congregation (and their partnering preschool) bring in gift-after-gift to the church. The Sunday school even jumped onboard to provide a little boy a new drum set. What joy!
4: Advent Retreat
The 7 YAVs spent 2 nights in Mississippi while we learned the importance of Advent and waiting for the arrival of our Lord Jesus. I often, as a Christian, glance over Advent and forget of the importance of devotedly waiting. It was refreshing and joyous to think of the journeys various individuals took in preparation for the new born King. During the weekend, the YAVs awaited the arrival of a spontaneous jump in the Gulf of Mexico. We spent the morning in our bathing suits prepared for the proper time (Layne, our site coordinator’s, word) to strip off our sweatshirts and dash to the beach. We also worked on our patience as we took part in a minor team building activity of building the YAV house in gingerbread form. Our new thought-out waiting skills were tested when the roof of the gingerbread house began to cave in.
5: Prison Mission Baskets
Lakeview Presbyterian Church has a wonderful member of their congregation who used to work as a teacher for juvenile prisons in a top security prison in New Orleans. Each Christmas season, she arranges for snack and hygiene baskets to be put together by the congregation. I got to go with her to drop off the baskets. On our drive, she told me stories of her teaching experience. She told me, “Her favorites [prisoners] were the murderers.” My heart was filled with joy as I listened to her talk. These teenagers had a special place in her heart. She spoke as though she saw them as humans and not for the crimes they committed. It was uplifting and joyous to see a woman lookout for these teens and a congregation to support her desire to give them something little this holiday season.
6: Esperanza Charter School Orchestra Concert in City Park
The children from at the tutoring program I work at all come from a predominately Hispanic charter school in NOLA called Esperanza. Two of the middle school students in our program are in their school orchestra. One Monday night the school orchestra was putting on a performance in City Park. I was happy to go (along with a handful of my housemates) to see these two perform. It was so cool to see these two 13-year-olds perform. The concert was in the botanical gardens area of the park which was decorated with lots and lots of Christmas lights. I was filled with joy while listening to the young musicians and know that these kids were choosing to build a brighter future for themselves by engaging in music at a young age.
7: Christmas Food Baskets
Lakeview Presbyterian Church and the Day School next door got together to put together 40 Christmas Food Baskets. Over the course of December, various nonperishable food products and toiletries were brought to the church and on a single Saturday morning, 25 of us gathered to assemble the baskets (in laundry baskets). These baskets were then dispersed throughout the city to various family who could use a little extra food this holiday season. One day while working in the church office, a woman came in to pick up a basket. I watched joy spread across her face when she saw the laundry basket filled with goodies.
8: Caroling with Quest Kids
On a Wednesday night, the middle school tutoring kids warmed up their singing voices and went out into the streets to share the joy of Christmas. This event was organized by the church that hosts the tutoring program, Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ. Member of the congregation join with the kids. After caroling we warmed up over cookies (made by the tutoring kids) and hot chocolate.
9: Advent at Lakeview
Lakeview Presbyterian Church really stepped up the Advent game this holiday season. The first season of advent began with the congregation standing up during the church service to decorate a Christmas tree. Wreaths were hung throughout the church to show various mission projects, families, and traditions that was the congregation. The choir performed John Rutter’s “Magnificat,” which was truly beautiful. The spirit of Advent shined through the church as the Advent candles were lit each Sunday. Walking into the church really made me feel happy and joyous.
10: Tutoring Christmas Store
The tutoring program I work with collects donated items throughout the year to provide a Christmas store for our tutoring kids. The kids earn good behavior stars throughout the month of December. During their last week of school before break, they get to shop in the store using their stars earned to purchase gifts for their family members. We then helped them wrap all the presents. It was joyous to watch the children eagerly wrapping gifts for their loved ones.
11: Camp Reunion Christmas Party
In the summer, the Church that hosts the tutoring program will host a 3-week day summer camp. One weekend day each month, our camp kids are invited to join us for a Camp Reunion. In December, our reunion was a Christmas party where each camper gets a present. These are no dollar store presents. The church funds the purchase of a gift for each child that attends their camp. This is nearly 60 presents. The children are invited on a Sunday afternoon for gingerbread and ornament making. I’m sure watching any kid unwrap a gift is joyous, but knowing how many of these children earned free lunch at school and that someone else living in this city had provided that gift for that child, well, I would consider that record breaking joy.
12: Day School Christmas Concert
My last day in NOLA before heading home for the holidays, the Day School put on a Christmas concert in the sanctuary. Some of the pre-school children are children of the church so I sat in the back of the crowded room as parents awed and snapped photos of their precious children. I love little kids and it was so joyous to witness such a cute event.
On top of these 12 joyous event I experience in NOLA, I did get to go home for Christmas and visit with family and friends.
While I hope you enjoyed hearing my 12 joyous Christmas events, I want to profess that these events were all organized and planned by locals in New Orleans. I was simply along for the ride. I also wish to share that my goal of this post was to inspire you as all these events did me. Church, congregations, communities and friends are the main joy in Christmas because look how powerful they can be. They can put on incredible events. Events that can change this world for the better. They can bring a community together in Mississippi to learn about Advent, they can support countless children in a poorer area of a city to have a joyous Christmas, and they can support a woman who cares for a forgotten group of people.
I witnessed joyous things this Christmas season and I hope that together, next Christmas, we can be inspired to double the joyous things.
Now, it doesn’t need to be Christmastime to experience joy. So, as we enter the new year, I want to encourage you to look around; notice what your community is doing and supporting. What can you be doing to participate in the joy?
Happy New Year! May 2018 be filled with JOY