Arizona pastor gives shoes to at-risk youth this Christmas
Written by Emily Schappacher
December 20, 2013

The Rev. Jeffrey Dirrim and youth from Rebel & Divine UCC in Phoenix.

This is the fourth Advent season that the Rev. Jeffrey Dirrim is busy collecting shoes – specifically Converse sneakers, in countless sizes and colors, which will be given to about 100 at-risk LGBTQ youth on Christmas morning. While most teens wish for electronic gadgets or expensive clothes for Christmas, these young people are grateful for the basic necessities in life, said the founding pastor of Rebel & Divine United Church of Christ in Phoenix. In fact, he never knew how important a pair of shoes could be until he started volunteering with youth who didn't have any. 

"What if we give them things their parents should be giving them? Things they need," said Dirrim. "Of all the stuff these kids are dealing with, the least we could do is give them some shoes."

With the help of donations from other churches and organizations, Rebel & Divine UCC puts together personalized Christmas gifts for these marginalized young people to open on Christmas morning. The packages include a new pair of shoes in the appropriate size and desired color, new underwear, a Christmas ornament, and a card with a handwritten inspirational note ("Nothing too churchy," Dirrim said. "But something that lets them know we care.") Through the Socks of Love program, the youth get a Christmas stocking filled with toiletries and some candy, and Rebel & Divine UCC will also have tables filled with food, fresh fruit, jackets, winter wear, and miscellaneous items such as toilet paper, school supplies and makeup.  

"I have been doing this long enough that I can see the differences the program makes in their lives," Dirrim said. "I look forward to the day we're not needed, but I don't know when that will be. The need has doubled every year."

Rebel & Divine UCC grew out of a local nonprofit's Christmas mission project to give new shoes to homeless, marginalized, at-risk and less fortunate LGBTQ teens in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Dirrim, who was the organization's volunteer interfaith chaplain, was touched and inspired by the stories of these youth, many who were homeless after coming out to their families as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. He realized that many of them were in these perilous situations because of their families' views on faith and religion, so he founded Rebel & Divine UCC to provide a safe space where they could know that Jesus loves them for who they are. 

"We have to build trust and a relationship with a community who has been told they are hated by Jesus and God, and introduce them to a new faith at the same time," Dirrim said. "I had no idea the magnitude of what we were doing until afterward. This was a shoe drive – it was never meant to be a new church start." 

Dirrim said the church is still seeking donations to fulfill all of the requests from young people this year. Sneakers have to be canvas so they can be washed and dried quickly, must have laces so youth can tie them to their belt loops when they sleep so they don't get stolen, and shouldn't be anything too fancy so the owners don't get mugged. The top-three additional items requested this year are full-size bottles of shampoo, toilet paper and multivitamins. The Rebel & Divine website also takes donations through PayPal, and Dirrim said $20 can provide a complete gift for one person.

"We want these kids to open a wrapped present with their name on it and be excited about what they receive, and every $20 given is a youth opening that personalized present on Christmas morning," Dirrim said. "There is a lot of heart with that. I can't articulate it, but it's a lot more than just shoes."

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Ms. Emily Schappacher
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