Children in Connecticut church learn about Christmas giving through year-round mission work
Amid the excitement of presents from Santa, getting children to focus on the meaning of Christmas Eve worship can be challenging for even the most patient parent — and pastor.
The Rev. Kate VanDerzee-Glidden, senior pastor of First Church of Christ Congregational — a United Church of Christ congregation in Glastonbury, Connecticut — has found a way to get the tinseled-haloed “angels,” bathrobed “shepherds” and the rest of the children’s nativity pageant ensemble to embrace the meaning of the holy night. She turns the pageant into a moment for mission.
Each December, families participate in “Baby for the World,” collecting diapers, baby wipes and formula for local agencies and food pantries.
“By doing this, the children get to see that they are helping others, especially important during this time of year,” said VanDerzee-Glidden.
On the night of the Christmas Eve service, when the pageant begins, VanDerzee-Glidden invites all the children to bring forward the gifts and place them beside the “baby for the world” which they are celebrating — Jesus. A stockpile of baby supplies is also available for children who are visiting the church that night.
“We want every kid to come forward. We don’t want anyone to be left out,” said VanDerzee-Glidden.
Kids, parents share God’s love
Parents are appreciative of the mission engagement children experience at First Church.
“Giving them a chance to help others is wonderful,” said Lauren Guiditta, a mom and member of the congregation. “Children learn by doing. We are teaching them about the love that God has given them to share with the world.”
Teens, too, are involved in sharing the love at the holidays, helping stock food in local pantries and schools and visiting older members of the congregation with Christmas goodies.
“There is something so special and memorable when a 14-year-old visits a 95-year-old with a plate of cookies,” said VanDerzee-Glidden.
For high school senior Emma Ferrall, helping others has been important in her faith formation.
“It makes me feel good because I know what I do makes a difference in someone’s life who needs it,” she said.
Her younger brother, Curtis, agrees. “I think it’s important to help other people who don’t have enough money to get the things they need,” said the sixth-grader.
Their mother, Faith Ferrall, added that these opportunities show youth that “giving freely is what makes the world a better place.”
“It shows that they can be part of the greater good,” she said.
Bursting the bubble
VanDerzee-Glidden also has a unique way of sharing the act of giving with others beyond the sanctuary walls — raising awareness among the community of what First Church is all about.
VanDerzee-Glidden explains that teachers often receive tokens of thanks from students before Christmas break begins. Rather than adding yet another scented candle to the stockpile of gifts, VanDerzee-Glidden encourages parents to donate to one of the church’s mission projects in the teacher’s name. A card noting that donation is then given to the teacher.
“Teachers are surprised and touched by the gesture,” she said.
Engaging in missions is not just a seasonal enterprise at First Church. It is a year-round activity with projects happening each month for children and teens.
VanDerzee-Glidden notes it is important to raise awareness of the needs of others throughout the year, saying that it is all too easy to live in what she calls the “Glastonbury bubble.”
“For the most part, our community is blessed, but there are communities beyond Glastonbury where the needs are many,” said the pastor.
From collecting food for pantries and school supplies for those in Connecticut cities such as Hartford, children and teens not only participate but also learn about the systemic reasons for poverty and hunger through teachable moments during church school and worship.
“We pride ourselves in taking seriously the teaching our children the importance of engaging in mission work,” said VanDerzee-Glidden.
The pastor also takes pride, too, in bursting that “Glastonbury bubble” even wider to include worldwide missions. “It is important that children are aware of both the local and global needs,” said VanDerzee-Glidden.
Supporting school in Palestine
To achieve this, First Church alternates its children’s and teen’s mission project each year, one year focusing on a local project and the next on an international initiative.
“One year, we might be working with local schools in Connecticut, and the next year we might be helping a school in Palestine,” said VanDerzee-Glidden.
That is what the most recent global project entailed. For the 2022-23 church school year, First Church raised $11,150 to benefit the Rawdat El-Zuhur School (Arabic for “Garden of Flowers”), a co-ed elementary school in East Jerusalem. The school serves lower-income Palestinian children from kindergarten to sixth grade, where both Christianity and Islam are taught.
The church focused funds to provide children with school uniforms as well as summer camp and after-school programs. To date, the congregation has not heard of any follow-up on how the school may have been impacted by the escalation of violence and resulting crisis in the region, but VanDerzee-Glidden and First Church continue to hold in prayer those impacted.
‘God wants everyone to be happy’
The project was chosen as First Church — a “big One Great Hour of Sharing church,” as VanDerzee-Glidden noted — reached out to the UCC national office in Cleveland inquiring what opportunities were available. The pastor and congregation were soon put in touch with the Rev. Phyllis Richards, program manager for Global Ministries’ Child and Elder Sponsorship Program.
Each month, the children then learned about the school in a variety of teaching moments. Among them was a song written about the school by a retired pastor, fittingly called “Garden of Flowers.”
“That was a fun and innovative way to teach them, and I am sure it is something the children will remember for a long time,” said VanDerzee-Glidden, adding, “We try also to find mission projects that are relatable to the children, and then find teaching moments that are tangible.”
The pastor is grateful that her church provides so many mission opportunities for children and teens.
“Mission work is important,” said VanDerzee-Glidden.
Simone Guiditta, a seventh grader in the congregation, couldn’t agree more.
“Mission work is important,” said Guiditta, “because God wants everyone to be happy.”
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