Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s call to "Grow Christ's Church Deep and Wide." The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter
The vision statement of College Park Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Fla., is "Where neighbors become family." It's a statement the members take seriously on both a local and a global scale.
With the holidays approaching, one of the biggest expressions of this vision is ramping up in the form of Operation Christmas Child, a project in which people collect shoeboxes full of gifts to be shipped to children around the world. The boxes can be packed with any number of things, from small toys to personal care items. They're then sent to places where children are most in need, places devastated by war or disaster. Once the boxes reach the destination country, they're distributed through local ministries, which sometimes follow up with Bible study programs for the recipients.
"The church has welcomed families from the neighborhood and grown as it has reached out to be effective in ministry there," said the Rev. Paige McRight, executive presbyter of Central Florida Presbytery. College Park is a fairly new church created from two churches that wanted to be more effective in ministry together.
"The sense of family has expanded to include children around the world, and their participation in Operation Christmas Child is an outgrowth of that commitment to serving God’s children everywhere in a congregation where neighbors become family," McRight said.
College Park doesn't just participate in the program; the church also serves as a relay center, collecting, packing and shipping thousands of boxes to a processing center for final inspection and shipping. It's an impressive operation, especially given that the church is not especially large — it averages 120-150 people on Sundays.
"We've been really blessed that when this ministry started, we just thought we'd collect boxes and then we became a relay center," said the Rev. Jeff Ryan, pastor of College Park. "We have processed over the last two years close to 8,000 boxes. Every year our numbers have gone up. It's been amazing considering this economy."
Ryan thinks that perhaps ironically, the bad economy might have put the project and the need for it closer to the front of people's minds.
"I think the blessing is that people realize there are others in this world who would trade up for our problems," he said. "Yes, our homes are being foreclosed on, but there are those who have never had a home. There are those who are struggling to feed their family. I think people have realized there are people and particularly children struggling in the world who don’t believe there's hope."
And hope is the heart of the program, Ryan said. A simple shoe box gift with some small toys or necessities gives a child more than just material goods.
"Every box has a name, every box has a story and on Christmas morning, every child comes to know that Jesus loves them," Ryan says.
As for how such a small church handles such a large project, Ryan said it's by choice. After participating as individuals the first year, members found the program to be such a wonderful experience that they wanted to do even more. The coordinators of Operation Christmas Child in Florida asked if the church would consider being a relay facility.
"Our church gets excited and really rallies around it," Ryan said. "God blessed us with a wonderful facility. We have the space and we have the people that have the heart and we took a step of faith to say, 'Lord, it doesn’t matter how many people we do or don't have, we have you, and if you called us to do this, we will take a step of faith.'"
This is the third year College Park will participate as a relay center so they already have many of the details worked out. One member with a truck volunteers to transport the finished boxes. Others do everything from donating items to packing and wrapping boxes to simply greeting people that come to help out or drop off boxes.
"What makes Operation Christmas Child work is people giving of themselves, of their time and talents and resources," Ryan said. "It's a wonderful ministry that everyone can be involved in, from the youngest children and it teaches them it's about giving, not receiving."
The operation has also been an opportunity for the church to get outside its own walls and work with the surrounding community.
"One of the things we say in our church is 'where neighbors become family,' so we look at this as family building and family time that we're able to come to know different people within our community and what their struggles are," Ryan said.
College Park has built a number of good relationships with the community. People know them as the place they come to give Christmas boxes, and the members have gotten to know other area churches and their ministries.
"It's building community," Ryan said.
Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.