One dark December evening many years ago I happened to drive past St. Stephen’s when it was hosting a Caring Christmas Tree distribution site. Before I even knew anything about the church family here, the significant queues outside and the impressive stacks of trees in the garden caught my attention. A fleeting thought while I waited in traffic: “what a unique opportunity that church must have!”

And what an opportunity it has been in 2021. Alison McLaughlin organised this year’s collection and certainly capitalised on the unique nature of the event. Bethany told us that the feedback they had received from past customers was clear and simple: make the collection as “Christmassy” an experience as possible. Well, who better equipped to do that than the church herself? Not only that, St. Stephen’s is the only church-based collection site for Bethany’s Caring Christmas Trees in the city.

Queuing on the cold, hard pavement of East Fettes Avenue is one way to collect your tree, but seeking to offer a better experience and some warm hospitality we instead welcomed punters into our heated church sanctuary. With the stage decorated, the beautiful nativity illuminated, Christmas music playing, and lights lowered creating a peaceful atmosphere, this was a far nicer environment than the pavement. The indoor route meant shelter from the rain, wind and cold too. Families were welcomed through the main door, greeted with a hello, and offered a chocolate and a cup of hot chocolate while they waited for their tree to be netted and carried away.

For one Friday night and two Saturday mornings, over 450 trees were collected by families of various sizes. Most people didn’t come alone so it’s not unreasonable to think a thousand received warm Christmas hospitality. We had some lovely conversations with people and were surprised by just how many stopped to thank us and comment on what a nice gesture it was to accompany their tree collection. Some of these chats were only half a minute, but some were half an hour or more! The sentiments were echoed by the Bethany volunteers too, who braved the outdoors for four hours each day and undoubtedly found a respite from the cold very welcome indeed. A significant number of folks encouraged us to repeat (or even expand!) hospitality again next year.

We give thanks to the Lord who has positioned our church in such a way for so many to come to our doors every year in December. We pray that the simple welcome through our sanctuary is a moment of pause and a reminder that the humble baby Jesus is the reason for the season, and his people offering hospitality are ambassadors of God-given joy. Next year, when the time comes, join us in planning how we might further expand our efforts and join us in prayer that God will continue to use this simple family tradition through his church in a mighty way.

[from Kenny McCartney, Youth Pastor]

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