The gift? Only a pair of socks. But the six-year-old boy eagerly abandoned his shiny new toys, ripped off his tattered shoes and socks, and pulled the new, warm socks on his dirty feet. His face glowed, his smile stretched ear to ear. I was stunned at his reaction.
Act One: 1966
It was Christmas 1966, more than half a century ago. But every Christmas season the video in my mind plays again and again.
The little guy had sat quietly in a corner near the Christmas tree, playing with a new toy truck. He was surrounded by some 30 rowdy, young kids calling, laughing, and running about in loud delight as they played with their new Christmas gifts. They were guests in the living room at our Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house at Athens College in Athens, Alabama.
I knelt down beside him to talk and play with him. He was quiet, almost non-responsive, but I kept pointing out that he had more gifts unopened. At first, he just continued playing with his new truck. Finally, I gently pushed another gift into one hand, and he reluctantly put the truck aside and slowly tore the paper away from his next gift. I couldn’t believe how his eyes lit up and his lips turned up in a broad smile.
Yes, only a pair of socks.
To provide full context for the scene, my fraternity had adopted a “service project” to host a Christmas party for a house full of kids who might not have much more than what we could offer. Working with the proper agencies and schools, we secured ages and sizes, and Christmas wishes of the children, then solicited donations to purchase (as I remember it) five or six appropriate gifts for each of our young guests.
It was a Christmas experience I’m sure none of the brothers will ever forget.
Act Two: 1969
Skip forward a few years to 1969. Having graduated from college, I was a part-time youth director at Arab First United Methodist Church in Arab, Alabama, and our youth group was brainstorming about how to celebrate Christmas in the right spirit. I remembered my young friend from three years prior and tossed out the party idea for underprivileged kids.
It quickly took root in the hearts of the teens in the group and volunteer youth counselors Linn and Carolyn Brannon. So, we began our plans, pretty much following the steps from my college experience. Before it was over, the Arab FUM teenagers had ministered to about 30 children, providing them with Christmas needs and surprises – much more than they would otherwise have received.
We brought them to the church fellowship hall for the party, shared Christmas foods, gave them gifts, and retold the Christmas story of God’s greatest gift to all mankind, how Jesus is our way to eternal life.
Teaching school full time and trying to do justice to a youth director’s role (forty miles away from home) turned out to be more than I could handle, so I resigned from the latter. But the next year, 1970, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Arab youth group was again planning a Christmas party for kids.
And 1971? Another party. 1972? Party time again. 1973…
Act Three: 2019
Fast forward now. On December 14, Arab FUM will celebrate 50 years of a ministry that has become known as Christmas and Beyond, providing food, family needs, and plenty of fun gifts for kids and families in their community. Each child will receive personal gifts, a Bible, fruit and candy bags, and a family food box. During the party at the church, parents may choose free items from the church’s clothes closet.
Christmas and Beyond? I asked Dawn Liebner, AFUM director of adult discipleship, what that means. She told me the church touches base with the kids again at the end of summer and gives each one a $50 gift card and Christian outreach gifts to share with friends as school resumes.
“Christmas and Beyond gives us opportunities to help children at Christmas and throughout the year,” Dawn said. “We help approximately 120 children each year.” She and volunteer Joy Privette co-chair the event, which has mushroomed into a ministry far beyond what we could have imagined 50 years ago. This year, the church will likely invest as much as $18,000 in this community outreach.
Act Four: Beyond
Remember the shy six-year-old with a new pair of socks? Yep – the video’s rolling in my head again.
For most of us, that simple gift would probably have been judged insignificant. However, this Christmas, it reminds me that nothing given in the name of Christ is small. It also brings to mind a scriptural principle – something about a cup of cold water. Maybe it isn’t the perfect parallel, but both illustrate how important a small and “insignificant” gift may be. The giver may well be blessed more than the receiver.
Jesus Himself taught us, “…whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).
Is there a take-away value here? I think so. I’m sure I sometimes overlook or ignore a simple gift – tangible or intangible – that might have the potential to launch a movement.
Never take for granted the impact a new pair of socks may have. Or a cold cup of water. Or a hot cup of coffee. Or a prayer. A kind word. A book. A candle. It could echo through the decades touching countless hundreds, even thousands, with the love of Christ.