A decade ago, after years of abusing drugs and alcohol, Leroy Bobtail Bear faced the possibility of going to prison.

“All my life I ran with the bad crowd,” says Bobtail Bear, who grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the North Dakota/South Dakota border.

But instead of going to prison, he was able to turn his life around. Today Bobtail Bear, a Hunkpapa Lakota American Indian, is a lay minister and receives theological training from Cook Native American Ministries (formerly Cook College and Theological School), in Tempe, Ariz. He is one of those whose lives have been touched by gifts to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Christmas Joy Offering. Fifty percent of the money gived to this special offering goes to help support Cook Native American Ministries and other racial ethnic schools and colleges related to the PC(USA).

Cook is the same institution attended by Bobtail Bear’s father, Leslie Bobtail Bear, an Episcopal priest who eventually became a United Church of Christ minister. One of Leslie’s desires was that one of his children would follow in his footsteps and become a leader in the church.

The possibility of going to jail was a wake-up call “that I needed to change my ways,” says Leroy. “I was just tired of that life and wanted something better.”

He sobered up in 2003 and began tapping into the spirituality that his father and his Native American culture had nurtured. This led him back to the church as well, and he asked his father if he could assist him in his work with the church.

Leslie Bobtail Bear died in 2006, and in 2007 Leroy Bobtail Bear became the lay pastor of Green Grass United Church of Christ in South Dakota, about 20 miles northeast of Eagle Butte. The church is located on the Cheyenne River Lakota Reservation, where Bobtail Bear now lives.

He also began theological education at Cook, saying it “couldn’t have come at a better time.” He attends the school’s summer- and winter-term classes, and also has completed the commissioned lay pastor program.

Cook “really inspired me to keep going,” says Bobtail Bear, who has a wife and five children. He says the professors and others are “just phenomenal” and “it’s been really a good healing experience for me.”

Help for small-church pastors

The impact of the Christmas Joy Offering also can be witnessed in the life of Linda Stewart-Kalen. A second-career pastor, she discerned her first calling in early childhood education and poverty intervention with children and families. For years her salary was measured as a percentage of the poverty level.

“I worked for low-income communities and I worked for a low income all of my working life,” Stewart-Kalen says.

When she heard God’s call to the ministry, Stewart-Kalen answered it with the understanding that it could mean limited wages and benefits. But she has received help through the assistance program of the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions, another recipient of Christmas Joy Offering funds. Money from the offering has made it possible for Stewart-Kalen to serve small rural and urban congregations that might not otherwise have been able to afford a pastor.

She first served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Myrtle Point, Ore. In 2005 she was called to serve as pastor of Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Portland, Ore. Although Colonial Heights has only about 50 members, it engages in a range of programs and activities, Stewart-Kalen says. “I made a commitment to them that I am going to stay for the long haul,” she adds.

Stewart-Kalen is the sole wage earner for her family, which includes her husband and two children, who are now young adults. Medical issues have limited her husband’s ability to work. With one income the family made sacrifices over the years, particularly in the area of medical care. Among other things, Stewart-Kalen deferred preventive medical care such as mammograms and bone density tests because of the out-of-pocket costs.

By 2009 the family had thousands of dollars of unpaid medical expenses. Absorbing that extra cost seemed “just overwhelming,” says Stewart-Kalen. Then in early 2010 she received a shared grant from the Presbytery of the Cascades and the assistance program of the Board of Pensions to help with the family’s medical and dental expenses.

“The medical assistance … was really life-giving for us and for the congregation that I serve,” she says. “The church would love to be able to more amply take care of us, but this is a small, blue-collar membership with minimal savings.”

People giving to the Christmas Joy Offering should know that they are helping to provide “a network of support” to show small congregations they have not been abandoned by the denomination, says Stewart-Kalen. “By not saying we are too small to have a pastor, they are enabling small churches to engage in vital ministry. A whole community of faith surrounds them with their efforts.”

Assistance for retired church workers

Ruth Crawford, 81, knows her life would be much different than it is today without the assistance she gets from the Board of Pensions. The widow of a minister, David Lynn Crawford, she receives income and housing supplements made possible by Christmas Joy Offering funds.

Without this help, she says, “I would not be anything as happy as I am now.” Crawford lives independently in her own apartment in a retirement community in Santa Rosa, Calif. For many years she lived in one of the Board of Pensions’ retirement homes—El Sombroso Oaks in Los Gatos, Calif.

Crawford and her husband reared five boys and gave significant service to the church over the years. David Crawford served pastorates in Soda Springs, Idaho, and Santa Barbara, Calif. After he died from cancer in 1989 at the age of 60, Ruth Crawford did five tours as a mission volunteer.

Today she is a member of Stone Church of Willow Glen in San Jose, Calif., and lives comfortably and close to her family, which includes seven grandchildren. The Board supplements are “very helpful and much appreciated,” she says. “I am so grateful for that (assistance) and all of the things that the Board of Pensions does.”

The Christmas Joy Offering is one of the PC(USA)’s four churchwide special offerings. Most congregations collect it on the Sunday before Christmas — December 19 this year. It dates back to the 1930s, when Presbyterians in the South created an offering to supplement inadequate retirement income and provide supplemental medical insurance for former ministers, missionaries, church workers and their families. Presbyterians in the Northern branch of the church began taking a Christmas offering in 1960.

First designated for general mission and world relief, this offering evolved into a means for funding such things as health and welfare concerns related to children, assistance for former church workers living on inadequate pensions, racial ethnic education and nursing home care. In 1988 those two offerings were joined, and a year later named the Christmas Joy Offering.

Fifty percent of the offering goes to the Board of Pensions for assistance programs that provide support to retired and active church workers and their families. The other half of the offering supports Presbyterian-related racial ethnic education

Toya Richards is a freelance writer and student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.