Michelle and Chris Keown used to send Christmas cards to relatives and friends. The couple’s young children made wish lists filled with toys and dolls.
But the holidays have changed for the Keowns. Money they used to spend on cards and gifts now goes to their church, Asbury United Methodist in North Raleigh, which sends thousands of dollars each year to a school in Haiti.
“We still honor Christmas,” Michelle Keown said. “It just looks a little bit different. A good different.”
Asbury United Methodist has taken part in the “Christmas Is Not Your Birthday” program for the past two years. It encourages the church’s 400 members to give as much money as they spend on their families for Christmas.
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The idea isn’t so much to hold out on gifts, but to create a Christmas budget in a way that focuses less on presents and more on the true reason for the season.
The church, off Creedmoor Road, has raised more than $170,000 in the past two years to fund the Tarasse Secondary School in Sous Raille, a community in northern Haiti. The church hopes to raise at least $65,000 by the end of the month.
Money collected from parishioners helps pay for teacher salaries, school uniforms, prepackaged meals and fruits and vegetables for about 100 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.
Focusing less on gifts and more on the school in Haiti hasn’t been hard, said Holt Parrish, 17, a member of Asbury’s teen ministry.
“We’ve definitely come to realize how really blessed we are to be able to have all these gifts, and it really humbles us to see that not everybody really lives like this,” he said.
Tarrish’s family uses some of the money it would have spent on Christmas gifts to sponsor a child in Haiti. This summer, Parrish will be among the teen church members who visit the school.
He hopes to meet the child his family has supported.
“I’m really looking forward to that,” he said.
Called to Haiti
Asbury leaders learned about “Christmas Is Not Your Birthday” at an event two years ago where Mike Slaughter spoke. He is a pastor in Ohio who published a book about the program in 2011.
It aims to remind people that Christmas is a celebration of Christ and asks participants to consider giving a gift to Jesus by contributing to their church or faith community.
“We give each other gifts without thinking of him,” said Sharon Hensley, the business administrator at Asbury. “It’s a good way to think about the season and think of him and do something that will be pleasing to him.”
The program can be used to fund an initiative chosen by each church. Good timing led Asbury to Sous Raille.
Church leaders asked local missionary Stanley Wiebe if he was aware of opportunities for them in Haiti. Wiebe runs the Hearts and Hands for Haiti mission out of Raleigh and has worked with Asbury on mission projects for almost 25 years.
He spent about five years in Haiti, learning Creole and understanding some of the needs of the country and the community of Sous Raille.
The local school in the area needed funding at the time. The building was finished, but there was no money to operate it.
So Asbury decided to become the major source of financial support for the school.
“We almost feel like God’s been directing us to (Haiti) without us knowing,” Hensley said.
Sous Raille has weathered several severe hurricanes. Missionaries have helped in the aftermath of the storms, but no church has made the sort of commitment that Asbury has undertaken, Wiebe said.
“They fund a complete community – church, school, everything,” he said.
The Raleigh church’s effort is different from other missions it takes on. Asbury made a point to give local residents in Haiti the lead on many of the projects.
“It is their mission, it is founded and led by the Haitians, and it needs to be their work,” Wiebe said.
Asbury’s annual trips to Haiti also make the effort more than a mission. It’s about forming a relationship between the two churches.
“It’s them knowing that they can count on this church,” said Hensley, who has visited Haiti twice. “Through education, Haiti can change itself.”
Change at home
Asbury’s congregation has always embraced giving for Jesus’ birthday, Hensley said. Last year, the church exceeded its goal and was able to pay for the construction of a second story at the school.
This year, the church plans to fund a literacy program and begin building homes in Sous Raille if it surpasses its $65,000 goal.
Church members who visit Haiti will be able to see the changes their efforts make happen.
But there’s change at home, too.
Michelle and Chris Keown’s daughters – Emma, 6; Abbie, 3; and Hannah, 1 – will get a few presents from their parents on Christmas morning. They also saw a production of “Frozen” as part of “Disney on Ice” earlier this month.
But the bulk of money their parents would have spent on toys will sponsor a little girl in Haiti. Emma picked the child based on a photo in which the girl was wearing a pink dress. At the time, pink was Emma’s favorite color.
During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the Keown girls completed “deeds” from their Advent calendar. They did tasks around the house and helped their neighbors. Money they earned from the chores was donated to the church effort.
Michelle Keown said she thinks her daughters have embraced “Christmas Is Not Your Birthday” because they are so involved in the process.
“It was tangible,” she said. “They weren’t just sending a check to someone they didn’t know.”
On the Sunday before Christmas, the girls brought their extra change to Asbury’s weekly service.
Emma remembers when Christmas was more about presents. She doesn’t mind the shift. After all, she’s helping children in Haiti.
“We have a lot of stuff, and they have so little,” Emma said.