The greatest gift
For 18 years, the Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church in west Nashville has operated the Last Minute Toy Store, a powerful sign of this small congregation’s incarnational presence in the world.
December 20, 2011 | LaTonya Rucker, a 36-year-old disabled mother of five, felt her heart sink when she approached Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church at 5:30 a.m.
There were already so many people in line that she feared she was too late.
It was the Sunday before Christmas, and those in the queue outside the small white building in west Nashville were waiting for a golden ticket of sorts: A numbered slip of paper allowing them to select new, free gifts at the church’s Last Minute Toy Store. But it turned out she was No. 375, the last to be admitted for the day.
“What are the odds?” she said. “Next time I’ll know.”
What Rucker wasn’t aware of is that the first in line -- another mother of five who told her children she was going to the North Pole for a couple of days -- had been there since Friday night.
For 18 years, the Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church has operated the Last Minute Toy Store in the final days before Christmas. It is an event that is all about giving; during the four days the store was open last year, more than 4,600 children and youth from more than 1,400 families received new toys and gifts, along with books, oranges and candy canes, at no cost.
But this is not an affluent church that just opens its pocketbook. The humble congregation, all but a few low-income themselves, offer their ongoing time, efforts and sense of ownership instead. The toy store -- with more than 20,000 gifts worth some $200,000 donated by individuals and organizations citywide in the months preceding Christmas -- is aimed at reaching those who have missed the deadline for toys from other agencies.
It also draws hundreds of individual volunteers who join members of the congregation in pulling it off. Many volunteers receive assistance themselves.
Each year, the church -- located in an area where 90 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches -- experiences the spotlight during the December event. But the Last Minute Toy Store is simply the largest and most public example of the way the congregation embodies its mission to serve the community.
It squarely points to a core belief of not only the pastor but also the congregation: the importance of ministry with the poor instead of for the poor.
“It’s not about caring about people from a distance,” the Rev. Paul Slentz said. “The thing that’s really important to me … is not (solely) the idea of providing things for people in need.
Questions to consider:
- There is something profoundly incarnational about ministry with rather than to people in need. How are your ministries similarly incarnational?
- When have you participated in a community of mutual caring? What made it so?
- How important is it that those who are serving through the Toy Store are poor themselves? What might this say about understanding the context of one’s ministry?
What mindsets have been created in the congregation of Sixty-First Avenue UMC through the activities associated with the Toy Store? How might a mission program or project in your institution help cultivate more faithful mindsets in your institution?
“It’s helping grow a community of struggling folks into a community of mutual caring and being there for each other. It’s giving them an opportunity to serve and encourage others, and be disciples themselves.”
The ministry of toys
The toy giveaway began when the small church received a call from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program about creating a distribution point in West Nashville. Toys for Tots still provides some of the items each year, said “chief elf” Doc Hooks, who coordinates the massive undertaking.
But as time has passed and the event’s reputation has spread, the giveaway has become a signature of this congregation, and donations have come from an increasing number of sources, including drives at schools and companies.
“There are lots of really nice people looking for a place to have an impact,” Hooks said. “And this is a place that’s perfect for it.”
In the weeks leading up to the toy store, the donated gifts are held in a storage building, with added space in a semi trailer-truck parked nearby. Many companies give year after year without prodding, but church staff seeks out shopping assistance and discounts when donations come in cash.