This holiday season, share your blessings with others and discover the joy of giving.
Christmas. Whether or not the world wants to embrace its true meaning, it is a season to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and the gifts he brings: life, hope, healing and restoration. Some people celebrate by exchanging gifts with loved ones. Others attend a candlelight church service, in which the nativity story is presented through songs, skitsand sermons. Still others serve their communities by volunteering at soup kitchens or spending time at a children’s home.
People to People Ministries, the humanitarian arm of the IPHC, celebrates Christmas a little differently. We have the opportunity to share Christmas with more than 6,000 children worldwide throughthe annual Christmas Spirit project, and we would love for you to join us this year!
Many indigenous cultures do not celebrate Christmas, and some have yet to hear the gospel. In 2007, People to People led the first Christmas Spirit missions team to the Central American nation of Panama, where we brought Christmas to the Guaymí people.
The Guaymí largely keep to themselves and only recently began to integrate with other cultures. Only a small percentage of Guaymí people choose to adopt
other cultures, with the majority clinging to their indigenous heritage. Mestizo missionaries first contacted this group in the 17th century, but they are still largely unreached today. The average life expectancy in Panama is 70; among the Guaymí, lack of medical care cuts life expectancy to 50. According to Operation World, evangelical Christians make up 20 percent of Panama’s population. However, the Joshua Project found that only 4 percent of the Guaymí people are evangelical Christians. They desperately need the healing and saving power of Jesus Christ.
Because the Guaymí live in remote areas, a trip to visit them is not easy. The People to People missions team had to drive over extremely rough, unpaved roads. One portion of the trip required a drive up a steep mountain path, while team members sat in the bed of an old metal truck with no seat belts.
At one point, the truck broke down and the team walked the rest of the way. In the midst of this, some team members questioned whether the trip was even worth all the trouble.
They soon discovered all the difficulty was worthwhile. As team members reached the village, children ran out to greet them.Even with a language barrier, the joy on their faces was unmistakable. Then, the team began to hand out something most of the children had never even seen before: crayons. “We had to show [the children] how to use them,” said People to People Director Matt Bennett. Even the adult villagers wanted to join in the experience! A simple toy––one that is quickly discarded in theUnited States when it becomes too dull–– opened the door for the team to connect with this indigenous group.
After presenting the crayons, the team began to share the gospel and the Christmas story through songs and skits. They also set up a projector to show VeggieTales in Spanish and took photos with the children.
The adults marveled at both of these technological items. Many had never seen photos of their children before and they kept asking to see the camera.
The celebration concluded in traditional American style––with ice cream, cake and Christmas gifts. The villagers had never eaten ice cream before!
Handing out gifts was one of the most touching experiences for team members. Because the Guaymí do not celebrate Christmas or birthdays, the children had never received gifts before. Team members had to explain repeatedly that the toys were theirs to keep and that nothing was required in return.
There was one especially stirring moment that day. A little girl, about 7 years old, suffered from a severe form of spina bifida. She’d spent her life lying in a hammock, causing extreme curvature in her back. The missions team gave the girl’s family a brand-new, off-road stroller. The mother was so overwhelmed by the team’s generosity that she began to cry when she saw the gift. She explained that now she would be able to take her daughter with her when she worked in the fields. It is amazing that such a simple gift––a basic necessity by American standards––can make such a difference for someone in need.
Since that trip, the work in central Panama has grown to be the third-largest People to People project in Latin America. God is using leaders like Lirys Alvarado, PTP’s national facilitator in Panama, to continue reaching the Guaymí.
It’s Not About the Gifts
Some may wonder why we give toys when so many children in the world are suffering from poverty and malnourishment. While feeding programs are important, it’salso necessary to nurture the soul. PTP is not just giving toys to children; we are using Christmas gifts as an avenue into peoples’ lives so that we can share the eternal gift of Christ’s salvation with them. The Bible says it is more blessed to give than to receive, and People to People team members affirm this. Team member Jewel Nichols said that giving the Guaymí children gifts “gave them a sense of being and joy and knowing they are loved as much as anyone else in the world.” Nichols, who lives in Greensboro, N.C., said the trip was life changing.
“It really showed me how we truly need to be the feet of Christ by going, and be the hands of Christ, touching these children’s lives physically and spiritually,” she told Experience.
Mayra Muñoz, who participated in People to People’s 2007 outreach to the Guaymí people in Panama, said words could not describe the joy she felt when she finally arrived in their isolated village.
“I struggled to communicate, since most of them spoke [only] the Guaymí language, and in my effort to learn how to say a few phrases, they just laughed,” she says. “However, what a comfort it is to know that God’s love made itself evident in our midst; his language of love was spoken over and over again.” Muñoz added: “What an incredible experience it was to speak the language of God’s love, a language that has no barriers, needs no words––it simply takes an action of kindness to penetrate the hearts of people.”
As we approach the Christmas season, we can easily get caught up in the hustle and bustle of holiday activities. As you plan your own festivities, please make giving to the unreached a part of your Christmas celebration. Celebrate God’s greatest gift to mankind by putting a gift in the hands of a child who needs to learn the true meaning of Christmas.