The piles of gift-wrapped toys stood 10 boxes high, full of Iron Man dolls and plastic binoculars – a collection of presents so vast that Nerf basketballs rolled off the tables and tea sets slid to the floor.
The children who stared at them wide-eyed Saturday came from homeless shelters, public housing and plain old hard luck, and they politely collected one each – for some, the only box they will open Christmas morning.
Everyone who came to Christ Our King Community Church on Garner Road collected a present and a meal, and by 1 p.m. Saturday, 86 people enjoyed a free haircut as a bonus.
“When I heard about it on the radio, I like to break my leg,” said Rodney Siles, 55, getting a trim. “Years ago, I was in the shelter. Now I got my own place, a little vehicle. And I’ve got salvation.”
This flood of charity came together for the 21st straight year thanks to the Rev. Phil Brickle, president of Lost Sheep Outreach Ministry. On the same day when a man dressed as Santa Claus got arrested for protesting at the General Assembly, Brickle assembled volunteer Santas to wrap more than 5,000 presents in a frenzy of scissors and a blizzard of Scotch tape.
“We know that many families have to make choices between giving gifts for their kids and paying their bills,” he said. “We would like to see all children wake up with something under their Christmas tree.”
The crowd at Christ Our King swelled close to 1,000 people who traveled from as far as Fayetteville and Dunn, most of them towing children who lined up to get their faces painted with sparkles and to wear hats made out of balloons.
“I am a single mother of three,” said Ashley Gupton, 27, of Wake Forest. “I lost my job last year. I’m still waiting to put the baby in day care so I can go back to work. But the community is supporting me.”
Inside the church’s gift room, the presents got divided into categories, youth and adult, men and women. Sweatshirts, slacks and sport coats sat piled for the taking. But before the doors opened and the gift-getters filed past, Christ Our King held a three-hour service in a room the size of a gymnasium, the long tables decorated in red and green. Brickle urged the hundreds there to crowd inside and hold hands.
“We struggle with addiction,” he said. “We struggle with unemployment. We struggle with housing. We have family issues. I want you to bring what you struggle with to the altar. I was struggling for 20 years with a heroin addiction. But I took steps. There’s still room at the altar. There’s room for you, too.”
The scene ought to bring sobering thoughts for those of us who wonder whether to buy an Xbox or a PlayStation this year, to serve turkey or prime rib, to add a 5-foot Rudolph for our yard decor. I invite anyone who’s ever used the words poor and lazy in the same sentence to come and meet the people you put down. You’ll get a hug from a stranger, a smile from an unfamiliar face and love from people with nothing else to give.