Holidays are packed with meaning. For many Americans, the distance between Thanksgiving and Christmas is best measured in loving embraces, refreshing pauses and fond memories juxtaposed against the insanity of a packed schedule. Families come together, joy hangs in the air and images of peace and bounty are as plentiful as the carols that encapsulate them. The Holidays are everywhere, and that's a wonderful thing. For most of us.
It's well-documented that winter celebrations come with a potent package of negative health and emotions. Depression and stress come with the cocoa and lights. Many of us overcommit or over-imagine, losing track of the connective side of the holiday in the wrangling of its detailed minutiae. For some families, however, an overbooked schedule and a miles-long Christmas list are the least intimidating problems.
“I'd never been in the position to not be able to provide these things for my family”
Single-parent families and those struggling with homelessness, unemployment or unforeseen expenses face seemingly insurmountable challenges in the midst of bounty. In a season marked by generosity and celebration, their struggle is amplified. Especially for households that are less whole than they once were due to divorce or the passing of a loved one. Much of poverty is more than physical. It is a struggle to feel valued; to know and understand that circumstance does not define us. Too many in our area know this burden.
These are the families we invite to Night of Hope. Those whose children are in danger of waking up to the sensation that they are not like other children in the worst of ways; that they are lacking something. Families who have never needed nor sought help before, but who are suddenly overwhelmed with hardship. Who have lost their way. Who are without hope. Those like Jennifer, a single mother who came to Night of Hope in 2013.
“It was very strange. And I got very nervous about going because I'd never really attended a place where — I guess, on that level of receiving a turkey dinner and receiving toys for my child — I'd never been in the position to not be able to provide these things for my family,” Jennifer said. “It was humbling for me and I was nervous, but I was determined to connect with a church and, you know, something to help give my children — that particular Christmas — some good things that I couldn't provide for them because I was unemployed at the time.
“Usually Moms and Dads are with their children. Moms and Dads. I guess I just went for it. I just tried to find an empty table in the back, sort of, and just sat down and waited for the show to come on. So it is nerve-racking, but I just went ahead and did it. Did it for my children.”
My interview with Jennifer and Stephanie — her host that night in 2013 — was perhaps the most emotional and defining encounter I've yet had the pleasure of moderating. I've met men who grappled with PTSD, women inspired by generosity shown them in their youth and homeowners who refused to be sidelined by illness or catastrophe. All of those stories are potent and inspiring, but none resonate in quite the same way as the withdrawn-but-earnest confession of a mother who would tackle any challenge for her children. Jennifer's daughter sat next to me as we spoke, a quiet reminder that the hope inspired two winters previously had not been instilled into a single heart, but injected into an entire family.
“I heard what was going on and I quickly realized it was the real deal.”
Jennifer came to Night of Hope just once, during a season of her life more challenging than many of us will ever face. A mother of two, she had lost her job and needed to relocate. She had almost no support system, and she knew that she needed one. Finding it would be daunting, but it had to be done. And, without her knowing, the process had begun years prior with a new employee at a little church on the edge of Bedford, Texas.
“I was new to this area, so I was unfamiliar with anything related to Night of Hope or 6 Stones or Operation Back to School. I came on staff in July at Woodland Heights [Baptist Church] and my pastor quickly said to me ‘I got this card in the mail, inviting us to participate in Operation Back to School. I think we need to be a part of it. So go do this,'” said Stephanie, a Children's Pastor for 18 years who will be hosting Night of Hope for the 6th time this December. “I came to a meeting, and that was my very first time to see what's going on here at 6 Stones. I saw Scott — he spoke — and I heard what was going on and I quickly realized it was the real deal. It was the kind of program that would help us as a church to connect to our community.”
In 2013, Jennifer and Stephanie were complete strangers on a collision course with 6 Stones at its epicenter. Stephanie had committed to helping her church host students from Meadow Creek and Spring Garden in her first months on staff, and the stage was set for a life-changing encounter years later. We can't take much credit for the friendship forged over the two years that followed their meeting — a relationship built with caution and determination across many months — but we are proud to have helped give it life. We are, after all, a catalyst. We move people to move people.
“I cried. It just was such a blessing and a neat feeling to receive those gifts from people,” Jennifer said of the evening on which this community provided dinner and gifts for her family, “it just touched my heart and I guess I was at a place in my life where I was ready to venture out and find a church that I could connect with and help serve. Give back what was given to me that particular Christmas.”
So she made her way to the church that had proven itself to her: Woodland Heights.
“She needed somebody to help her, and I thought she was brave because she sought out that help.”
“I met them on a Sunday morning a few weeks after Night of Hope,” Stephanie recalled. “Jennifer and her daughter, Julia, walked up to me and I recognized Julia, but I didn't know from where. So I said ‘I know you! How do I know you?' And she said to me ‘well, I was at Night of Hope and you asked me to come up and tell a joke on the stage!' I remembered them and was so excited that they came to church as a result of participating with us at Night of Hope.
“I realized that they were in a time of their life that they were in crisis. Jen was in crisis. She was in a time where she had lost her job. She had to move. She needed somebody to help her, and I thought she was brave because she sought out that help. She walked in our church doors — a church she had never stepped into — she didn't have a history of attending or being a church member. I recognized that, when they came that Sunday morning. And realized that I needed to build that trust with her. It was just a matter of listening to her, being honest with her and really beginning to love on her child to help her understand the value and the importance of discipleship for her child and what we could help her with.”
Too often, we think of charity as momentary instead of momentous. At its core, the work we do is less about feeding the hungry, clothing the needy or sheltering the disadvantaged than it is about connecting people. In our line of work, there's a lot of talk about teaching a person to fish versus giving them fish. It's an important conversation, and one we value. But we think there's another layer: you've got to remind some people that there are fish and others that they have a rod and reel to lend.
Hope is the key component in human recovery.
“It just takes one step, and you realize that you're a part of something that's bigger.”
“Before Night of Hope, I felt like I was kind of floundering. Wandering. Just drudging through the day, trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do next,” Jennifer said, when I asked her how this one night had affected her. “It did, literally, give me hope that there's something more out there that I can do, even at my age and situation in my life. I was on my way back up from some pretty trying times… [this kind of thing] makes me want to be involved and be like these Godly women that I've met at church. Makes me want to better myself as a person, compared to being stuck in the problem like I was before.
“Jesus told us to go. And to tell. And to help,” Stephanie added. “He modeled for us. Everywhere he went, He helped. He gave. If He saw somebody in need, He provided for that need. It's important for us to participate in things like this because we're able to see and interact with people who need us… it just takes one step, and you realize that you're a part of something that's bigger. That you can be a part of your community. I feel like I'm part of my community more when I participate in things like this. I feel like I'm part of the greater Kingdom by participating in Night of Hope and the other things we do for 6 Stones. So it helps me see outside of myself. It helps me see people that need my help and that I can help. I need to. I should. I have to, because Jesus did.”
Jennifer's choice to find help on one of three hundred and sixty five nights in 2013 was part of her deeper sense that she needed something more. She had always believed in God, but was in a state of spiritual stagnation. She wanted to know more, and she trusted the people who had showed her love to teach her the things she hoped to learn. Stephanie, by simply responding to the call of her Savior to go and tell and help, was able to guide her through that search. Not knowing what it would look like or how it would unfold, she stepped into a position that matched her skill set and found a lifelong friend.
“Night of Hope… can be a beginning for those families,”
The pair of them told me about the undying trust they share, the openness and honesty that defines them as friends and sisters in Christ. They talked about the way they had been drawn together to guide Jennifer's children into that extended spiritual family. And they talked about the fact that it was hard work getting there.
“Jennifer needed a place to connect,” Stephanie observed, thinking back to the early days of their friendship. “I could help her with connecting with Julia. I had that down. But it was finding a place for her to connect… she was a single mom. She was in this transition time in her life, and she was hurt. She needed some people that would care about her, but it starts with being comfortable. She needed a place that she felt comfortable.
“Initially, she was frustrated. She had a difficult time connecting because we were having a Parenting bible study. She didn't want to attend a Parenting bible study… they were mostly married couples in the room. That's not where she wanted to be.
“She was brave and she kept trying. She found a class that took her in at church, loved on her, provided for her, cared for her, helped her move. Whenever she didn't have what she needed — physically or money or anything — they gave to her. And because they continued to give and to pour into her, I was able to do the same with [her daughter]. I was able to show her who Jesus was.”
The work we do at Night of Hope is, in many ways, mere gardening. We till the soil, gather the seeds and invite the farmers to come and meet the people who need their help. What happens after that depends on them. It can be a quick harvest that provides much needed relief in the midst of financial, spiritual and emotional famine. It can also be a lasting endeavor that yields fruit for years. Either way, one thing is for certain: Night of Hope is not a solution. It is a beginning. And we want it that way.
“It's important to do this to give families hope that their situation isn't permanent.”
“Night of Hope, really — especially as you can see with Jennifer — can be a beginning for those families [who attend],” Stephanie said. “Many times, this is their first time to be in crisis or to be without a job. It's difficult to ask for help. It's tough to go to the school counselor and be in need. Especially for some of the men and some of the single moms, as well. We want to take care of and do things on our own… It is a beginning. Because if we meet a need — Christmas gifts, a meal — if we can meet that need, that's our opportunity to tell them about who Jesus is and how He can meet their needs… Hope is found in Him.
“That can be a starting point. For Jennifer, it was a starting point for renewed spiritual growth. It was the same for her daughter. Since Julia has attended our church, she accepted Jesus as her savior. She's a leader in children's ministry. She's been baptized. Jennifer's son, that summer following, came to live with her. Had just accepted Christ where he was, but was baptized in our church and is now a part of the youth ministry. It all started that night because someone invited her to church and because she had the courage to go.”
“I believe it's important to do this to give families hope that their situation isn't permanent. That there are people out there that want to help them. That there are churches out there that want to reach out and bring people in and love on them. That's what it meant to me. It did, really, give me hope that there's more out there.”
Let's go sow some hope.