In the mid-nineties, there was a popular book called The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. One of the five languages explained in Chapman’s book is receiving gifts. If this is your love language, you appreciate a thoughtful gift and you’re typically a good gift giver. But many people find it difficult to find the perfect gift—or any gift for that matter—and regard it as a task to be done, a check on the checklist. This is especially true around the holidays as the long list of to-do’s take over our lives and our bank accounts…a gift for the spouse, the children, the friends, the in-laws and oh, that second cousin twice-removed who just happens to be in town. It’s enough to drive a person crazy! But, is this really what we should be focused on during the Christmas season? One IBC couple thought it was time for a change.
About 11 years ago, Bob and Ashley Bolton decided to reshape their family’s gift-giving traditions. “After our first several family Christmas celebrations as a newly married couple, we began to feel like we were just passing money around a tree with our extended family. It seemed to detract from the celebration of the coming of Jesus, rather than reflect it. We realized that gift-giving has its place as a true expression of love, but we also saw that giving a gift often made people return one out of compulsion,” Bob explains. So, they convinced their family to instead make donations to charitable organizations. “We wanted the season of Christmas to reflect the gift that Jesus is to us, rather than about amassing a bunch of stuff. We wanted to be able to enjoy giving a gift without expecting anything in return and frame our Christmas in a way that taught our kids to enjoy it in that way as well,” Bob adds.
After a couple of years, Bob and Ashley shared their new approach to gift-giving with their home group and Bible Community, Crossroads, to see if anyone had anything they would like to donate. Bob explains that one year, he and Ashley decided to use their gift money to feed and clothe the homeless. “It literally wasn’t much more than, hey, let’s use our gift money to buy food gift cards and blankets, let’s see who has shoes, jackets and shirts that they’d be willing to give away, and let’s go hand out bagels and warm coffee on Christmas Eve.”
When Bob began asking others for donations, he had a great response, but people didn’t just want to donate items, they also wanted to help deliver them. “The first year we went with about 20 people, including our kids, and walked around downtown with wagons loaded with food, coffee, jackets, blankets, and shoes. We distributed items to people until we ran out and we prayed with those that had the desire,” Bob said.
Not much has changed since that first year and for the people involved, the blessings have been abundant.
David and Jill Ostland joined Crossroads about five years ago. When they first heard about the Christmas Eve outreach, they definitely wanted in. Jill said she liked the idea of setting a good example for her children so they could see first-hand what it looked like to be a blessing to others. She and her husband also welcomed the opportunity for their children to get a glimpse of the world outside of their day-to-day lives.
As the ever-growing group of volunteers descends on downtown, it’s not just IBCers who are part of the group. Some of our neighbors from the Valley Ranch Islamic Center decided to join IBC in the homeless outreach. Ryan Sanders, IBC Community Pastor, explains, “I live in a religiously diverse neighborhood and I have developed friendships with many of my neighbors. When some of my Muslim neighbors heard about how we were serving the homeless, they asked if they could join us.”
...for the people involved, the blessings have been abundant.
Of course, the response was yes.
For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in. (Matthew 25:35)
As the group arrived, they set up near the Austin Street shelter where about 75 homeless people were gifted with everything from new socks and toiletries to gently worn clothing and gift cards. “It’s not just about serving their physical needs,” Jill explains. “It’s seeing their humanity.”
“What was amazing to me was seeing the joy and sparkle in their eyes when we provided them with something as simple as a gift card to McDonalds,” Jill said. “It wasn’t just about the food but the fact that they could take those gift cards, walk into a restaurant, sit down and be able to purchase their own meal. It gave them a place to rest and get warm and drink as many cups of coffee as they wanted. It gave them dignity.”
Jill explains that in addition to distributing needed items, a lot of what the team does is just listen—they listen to stories from people who are down on their luck, stories of people who are just like us but because of circumstances, oftentimes beyond their control, ended up on the streets. And they hear stories of faith.
Bob agrees, “It’s a blessing to meet and pray for them, to share a cup of coffee, and just listen to them tell you who they are.”
“I would say eight out of ten people I meet profess their faith in Jesus,” Jill adds. “They see us as God’s provision, an answered prayer, a blessing.” But for Jill and the other volunteers, they feel they are the ones who are blessed.
As Bob puts it there is no better blessing than to watch his friends laugh and step into the lives of the people they meet, engage them in conversation and then wrap their arms around someone to pray. There’s a quote from Mother Teresa that says, “We do not need to carry out grand things in order to show a great love for God and for our neighbor. It is the intensity of love we put into our gestures that makes them into something beautiful for God.”
This community of believers who serve the homeless in downtown Dallas remind us of what it means to show love and bless others and also what it means to be a good neighbor. Bob agrees with Jill that they are the ones who have been blessed the most. “It’s been a beautiful blessing to us to spend our Christmas Eves this way.”
As Bob reflects, he says the blessings are many, “It’s amazing to watch our kids get out there with their friends and engage this group of people who often don’t receive a second look from anyone other than their homeless cohort. Our kids don’t see homeless people—they just see a man or a woman created in the image of God that they get to serve. It’s a blessing to be a blessing—funny, it’s almost like Jesus meant it to be this way,” Bob adds.
What began as simple idea has grown without fanfare or committees from faithful people who were willing to pray, listen, share a meal, serve and tell a story.
How has God gifted you to bless others today?