In a year that’s seen a public-health crisis, job losses, business failures and social unrest, the holiday season might seem a bit subdued in 2020. Less traffic. Less bustle.
You wouldn’t know it if you happened upon three burgeoning faith communities in Tempe and West Chandler that have adapted to the conditions and risen to the challenge of making a difference in countless lives despite a cruel pandemic.
From providing food boxes and Christmas dinners for the struggling, to purchasing gifts for the incarcerated to give to their children, and shopping for pajamas for needy moms and babies, volunteers and people of good will have opened their hearts and stepped forward to help.
First Baptist Church of Tempe
Linda Bisjolie of First Baptist Church of Tempe has been involved with the Angel Tree project at her church for three years. The ministry is part of a nationwide effort that helps incarcerated individuals provide a Christmas gift to their sons and daughters.
Founded in 1982, Angel Tree has delivered more than 11 million Christmas presents to children of prisoners across the country.
First Baptist Church of Tempe has been participating in the effort for three decades.
“We get a little angel and it has their name and their age and what they like, and then we call the caretaker here and we get more specifics—the colors they like, their sizes. They get a fun gift and a clothing gift,” Bisjolie said.
Christmas trees in the hallway outside the sanctuary are adorned with angel-shaped tags that include details, such as the child’s age and size. Church members choose one or more tags.
In years past, members of the congregation purchased gifts they wrapped and then returned to the church with the Angel tag attached. Bisjolie and other volunteers then delivered the packages.
In light of COVID-19, First Baptist switched to $25 gift cards this year.
“Each child gets two angels, so they get two gift cards,” Bisjolie said.
This year, the congregation took on 23 families and 51 children.
Bret and Tasha Ryan and their 13-year-old son Jack participate in the Angel Tree program every year. They try to find an Angel who is the same age as Jack.
“I like picking people that are my age because I can understand how they feel and what they’d like and what they wouldn’t like,” Jack said. “And I like to help out people that don’t get a lot in life like I do.”
According to his mom, Tasha, “We usually give athletic equipment—a football, basketball, baseball or whatever.”
Whatever they did, Bisjolie does not judge the imprisoned parents.
“I don’t know what they feel inside there, but maybe it picks them up and they say, ‘Hey, I got something.’ And that little kid, whether they are 3 or 15, they call and they have contact with their mom or dad in prison they can say, ‘I got a gift. Thanks, Dad,’” Bisjolie said.
Arizona Community Church
At Arizona Community Church in Tempe, a food pantry for the needy that’s stocked all year long goes into overdrive during the holiday season, providing a festive meal at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Karen Goetz, office manager at the church, answers calls from members of the congregation and the wider community inquiring about assistance. It’s a humbling experience for many.
“I always try to reassure them that there’s a time in everyone’s life when they need help,” Goetz said. “We are a community that is here for people when they need it.”
Goetz arranges a time for recipients to pick up the food items confidentially. She knows all too well what it’s like to have to ask for help. Early in her marriage, her husband was out of work for 15 months and they had two young sons to support.
“Thankfully we had a church there that was very supportive and helpful,” Goetz said. “It was difficult, but we needed the help and we were so glad they were there for us. You have to just kind of know that is what the community of believers is for.”
Nancy Pruitt, the food-pantry coordinator at Arizona Community Church, can relate. She said her family also received assistance years ago and that she once taught at a school where many students were homeless.
“I do understand,” Pruitt said. “A lot of people are barely surviving.”
Some recipients of the church’s food boxes were just a paycheck away from financial ruin—and that was before the pandemic.
For Thanksgiving and Christmas, the church provides a turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, margarine and pie, plus a roasting pan and foil—everything needed to have a festive culinary celebration.
St. John Bosco Catholic School
Student leaders, known as Ambassadors, at St. John Bosco have long supported the moms, baby and staff who live at Elizabeth House in Tempe. The house is part of a network of homes operated by Maggie’s Place, an organization that brings young women together to live in community: pregnant moms with nowhere else to turn and the staff who mentor them.
Five moms and babies are living at Elizabeth House currently alongside staff. And they’re about to receive a cozy gift from the kids at St. John Bosco.
“The Ambassadors started a tradition several years ago of buying all the moms, babies and core members pajamas for Christmas morning.,” said Terri Lisi, who is grandmother to some of the St. John Bosco students involved in the project. “The students usually earn the money to pay for the PJ’s by working at the school carnival.”
Jena Gump, a first-grade teacher at the school, is the faculty advisor to the Ambassadors.
“Typically what we do is we sell cotton candy at our harvest festival but obviously that couldn’t happen this year with COVID so they are using their own money,” Gump said.
The idea of giving matching pajamas to Elizabeth House arose out of the students’ own family traditions.
“They don’t need this but I think our Ambassadors just wanted the moms and the core workers to have a special tradition of their own,” Gump said. “Service to others is ingrained in the students from the time they’re in kindergarten.”