"A Gift for Everyone" – Stories of Hope podcast from the North American Mission Board.
NEW YORK, NY (BP) – On an unseasonably warm Tuesday morning Dec. 10, the line of people at Tompkins Square Park on the corner of East 10th Street in New York City swelled to a little over 100. Some had been there since 1 a.m., armed with ponchos and umbrellas to battle a steady rain that fell on the city most of the night.
They were waiting for the doors of Graffiti Church to open for its annual toy sale outreach event. Inside, Graffiti's pastor and New York City Send Relief missionary Taylor Field, along with about 20 volunteers, also were waiting, anxious to spread a little Christmas cheer.
Field and several of the volunteers -- some donning Santa Claus hats and makeshift reindeer antlers with various Christmas salutations attached -- were in position at 9:15 a.m. when the first toy shoppers entered the church.
Qualified shoppers paid what Field called "a very low cost for new toys."
"This gives them the dignity of providing for their own children," Field said.
Those attending also received prayer and heard the Gospel in a one-on-one setting with Graffiti's prayer counselors.
Repeated refrains of "Merry Christmas" greeted each attender. In the church's basement, volunteers served coffee, hot chocolate, cookies and other pastries. Kareem Goubran, one of Graffiti's worship leaders, also played his guitar for the guests.
Goubran loosened up the crowd with a gregarious spirit while belting out familiar Christmas tunes. At one point, toy sale shopper Michelle Rodriguez and a few others warmed up to the spirit of the moment enough to showcase their own vocals as Goubran accompanied.
"We just really appreciate everything that this church is doing for us here for Christmas," Rodriguez said a little later as she made her way out the door with a bag full of toys. "This just means so much to us and our community each year."
Some of the shoppers were there for the first time while others were veterans of the annual event.
Then there were those like Carmen Villanueva, Graffiti's office manager. Villanueva has known of Graffiti for well over 20 years. A former Catholic, she and her daughter were baptized and joined the church 13 years ago.
Since then, she's volunteered for the toy sale outreach event and other ministry activities each year. But the toy sale has a special place in her heart -- perhaps because, at one point, she was on the other side of the event as a shopper.
"We've been in this neighborhood, and we've raised our kids here, just like Taylor (Field) and (his wife) Susan," Villanueva said. "I brought my kids here to the toy sale years ago, so the good thing about this event is there are a lot of people in the line who are familiar faces."
After marrying her husband of 33 years, Villanueva moved to New York's Lower East Side, five blocks from the church. The toy sale, along with several other Graffiti outreach initiatives, introduced her to the place she now calls her second home.
"We're in the neighborhood, and we're all in the same struggle," she said. "We brought up our families here. We brought them up with Christ in our homes, even when the neighborhood was really bad, and drugs used to be everywhere. A lot of us are grandmas now who are now shopping for their grandkids the same way we used to shop for our children. And now, some of us are serving God in this church."
Such a testimony is music to Taylor Field's ears but so too is the fact that 29 people surrendered their lives to Jesus Tuesday.
"For me, that's what is my passion. That's what makes my heart sing," Field said. "It's just seeing people come from difficult circumstances into a more self-sustaining place in Christ that I really enjoy."
Field sang the praises of volunteers like Villanueva and shared the account of a woman who brought the father of her children to the event. Field said the father was a cocaine addict, but before he left Graffiti Church that afternoon, he prayed a tearful prayer to receive Christ.
"You can't quantify stuff like that," Field said. "It's the reason why we've been doing this for quite a while. It's why we keep doing it because it gives us a chance to pray with people, and, as a church planter, I love the fact that I've also got 15 to 20 of our church members sharing the Gospel with people, so it's not just me. And that makes me really happy."
Field points to another long-time volunteer, Wally Eades, as one of the ones who has helped the event thrive each year.
"Wally's been doing it for 25 years," Field said. "Started in the basement of a little Spanish Baptist church. He's from the Statesville (N.C.) area, and we've been able to bring different churches (to help) each year."
Eades works on collecting donations all year round, and the outpouring of support allows Graffiti to turn its sanctuary into a store full of toys for kids of all ages, refreshments, music and fun. However, Field reiterates the fact that all of it exists to pry open a door for the Gospel to be shared and a prayer offered with each shopper.
That's the part that also excites Villanueva the most.
"A lot of times we'd have people come in to pray with the shoppers, but this year, the thing I loved most was that everyone that was a prayer counselor was also a member of our church," she said. "It was members, deacons and others who are here praying and sharing Jesus, and that just brings it closer."
It never fails that Villanueva will find at least one shopper during at Graffiti Church's toy sale who tends to stick with the ministry, just like she did over 20 years ago. That's why she believes the event is one of Graffiti's best on-ramps for people to connect deeper and find a loving spiritual family at the church.
"When I see them each year, I'm going down the line checking for their identification, and it's like, 'Hey, how are you doing this year? Are things getting better?'" she said. "When they come here, we know some are still struggling, but we receive them with a cheerful smile, and we always say, 'Graffiti is here for you. It's your church.'
"There's no judgment here. We won't ask you when the last time you came to church was. We just embrace you when you come and say that this is your home."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gabriel Stovall writes for the North American Mission Board.