By: Christa Meland
Nine-year-old Jason Fuhrer has always received gifts for Christmas. But he realizes that not all kids are as fortunate. That’s why he wanted to assemble shoeboxes for children on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, where needs are great.
His church, United Methodist Church of Thief River Falls, is among more than a dozen North Star District congregations that purchased items for and assembled shoeboxes, which will be handed out to children of all ages on Christmas Eve at All Feathers Spiritual & Community Center in Cass Lake, an ecumenical ministry that serves members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and a Minnesota Conference Advance Special.
“It’s giving and being a Christian . . . so someone can have a Christmas,” Jason Fuhrer said.
This is the second consecutive year that North Star District churches have donated shoeboxes at the encouragement of the Minnesota Conference’s Native American Ministries Action Team (NAMAT). Last year, 315 filled shoeboxes were donated; this year, NAMAT is estimating there will be 500.
The idea started with Rev. Rob Kopp, who’s pastor at United Methodist Church of Thief River Falls and serves on the NAMAT and All Feathers boards. Many North Star churches have assembled shoeboxes for other groups, including those served by the Spirit Lake Ministry Center in North Dakota. But Kopp saw an opportunity to make a difference closer to home.
This year, his congregation assembled 40 shoeboxes for children on the Leech Lake Reservation. NAMAT provided instructions for the shoeboxes. Each shoebox is different, but most include a toy and/or book, winter clothing (socks, hats, gloves, etc.), toothpaste and a toothbrush, and candy or snacks. Kopp’s church also included a stuffed “prayer bear” in each box.
Stacey Fuhrer, Jason Fuhrer’s mom and the coordinator of the church’s shoebox efforts, said the congregation’s kids assemble the boxes—and often pick out the enclosed items too.
“Packing the shoeboxes is a great opportunity for our children in our church to participate in a hands-on service project so they can learn to serve others and give back,” she said. “Packing these boxes and helping others . . . that’s what Jesus would do. . . . We want the children [of the Leech Lake Reservation] to be able to have something for Christmas.”
Jim Allen, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and All Feathers’ spiritual director, said the shoeboxes are a blessing to many, particularly because Cass Lake has a significant amount of poverty and a high unemployment rate.
“There is a great need for this,” he said. “Money’s short. Not everybody’s working in the area here. At Christmastime, to get a gift is really meeting a need. Lots of joy was received by families, kids, everybody who got a shoebox” last year.
Allen said some of the shoeboxes packed by United Methodist churches are distributed at the All Feathers Christmas Eve worship service, which welcomed more than 80 people last year. But some are also given to other local organizations to distribute to parents whose children might otherwise go without a Christmas gift—including the men’s and women’s halfway houses and outpatient programs, a food shelf and soup kitchen, a shelter for abused women, and a home health services provider.
Each shoebox contains a note about how it was assembled thanks to the generosity of Minnesota United Methodists.
“I think [recipients] can see God at work in the generosity that comes from the United Methodist Church,” Allen said.
Rev. Mickey Olson, pastor at Peace United Methodist Church in Virginia and Gilbert United Methodist Church, said both of her congregations participated in the shoebox ministry this year, donating 41 assembled boxes between the two.
She said it was a good mission for both churches, adding that inaccurate perceptions of Native Americans are pervasive on the Iron Range. Assembling the shoeboxes provided a good opportunity to discuss ways to learn about and be in ministry with Native Americans—and Olson encouraged members of her churches to visit the Leech Lake Reservation and get to know its culture and people.
“Jesus wants us to see the other and to reach out and engage people—not just write a check,” she said. “To heal a broken world, we have to see the people Jesus sees who are marginalized by our society.”
It makes Jason Fuhrer sad to think about how some kids don’t get a Christmas like the ones he’s gotten to experience every year since he was born. But he also knows that his participation in the shoebox ministry will help other kids experience God’s love this Christmas. That’s spreading the good news. That’s healing a broken world. That’s what this holiday is all about.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church