The Gift that Keeps on Giving: One Woman Who Celebrates Christmas All Year Long

Humidity from the muggy Alabama air fogged up Rebekah Parr’s office windows entirely. The heat index was well above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and perspiration gathered at her hairline as she decorated a Christmas tree, just one of the 15 trees she had decorated that day.

Parr is the Ministry Evangelism Catalyst for the Shelby Baptist Association in Columbiana, Alabama. This means that she is responsible for many initiatives in her community from ministry efforts to public relations efforts among churches and constituents. But as summer draws to a close, it is time for her nonprofit to shift focus to the holiday season, still months away.

Each year, while the summer air is still hot and balmy and the leaves firm in the trees and shining green, Rebekah Parr gets to work on the Shelby Baptist Association’s Christmas Gift Shop ministry. That work begins, like most Christmas preparations begin, decking the halls and trimming the trees.

“The Christmas Gift Shop is really a yearlong ministry. We do follow-up after each Christmas and early spring, late winter. We have our annual banquet every August and from then on its all hands on deck,” said Parr.

The Christmas Gift Shop is located in an old doctor’s office building, that was donated to the Shelby Baptist Association, in Calera, Alabama. Every room is meticulously decorated to resemble the coziest Christmas cottage. After an initial intake appointment, those who participate in the ministry are greeted by a rustic wood burning fireplace. Green Christmas trees strung with lights and red and gold ornaments adorn every corner of the foyer.

The Christmas Gift Shop serves over 300 families each Christmas season by providing food, clothing, toys and gifts to impoverished families.

“When you walk into the Christmas Gift Shop, and it looks like Christmas and it smells like Christmas, it’s a special feeling and a lot of people don’t get that during the holiday season.” Parr said.

“From the largest church, to the smallest church in the association, every church is somehow involved with our Christmas Gift Shop ministry. It is a ministry that a lot of people look forward to, and its an opportunity for us to all come together and meet a need that is connected with why we exist,” Parr said.

“Of course the physical gifts are not the true meaning of Christmas but by meeting that need, by being able to bring some hope and joy at a time when a lot of people are suffering, we can offer that, we can fill that need,” Parr said.

Parr greets every client who enters the Christmas Gift Shop at the time of their appointments, which begin as early as Nov. 1. Parr guides parents to specific rooms depending on their children’s age and gender. In these rooms, parents can choose from a selection of new toys, games, toiletries and other gifts for their children.

Clients are then treated with hot cocoa and fresh baked cookies while a chaplain sits down with them and shares the story of Christmas. Meanwhile, Parr communicates to volunteers, and these little elves slip from room to room unseen, filling a Santa bag full of the parents selected items. Finally, Parr brings in the gifts, completely wrapped in colorful red and green paper, topped with bows.

Raised in impoverished and rural north Alabama herself, and brought up in church, Rebekah said she hopes her ministry will extend the same kindness and respect that developed her to take the position she has today.

Parr said, “We think it’s very important to treat people with the dignity and respect that we would want to be treated with if we were in that situation if we were in need. It is very important not to just hand gifts that we have selected.”

“We want to make sure we have conversations with them, we want to make sure they feel like they are Christmas shopping and then when they walk into the mantle room and see their children’s personalized stockings hanging over the fireplace. We want people to feel welcomed, loved, treated with respect and we want them to feel open to the Holy Spirit,” Parr said.

In 2020, however, the Christmas Gift Shop is having to adapt to the current health crisis facing everyone. The Christmas Gift Shop normally operates with a staff of over 500 volunteers, mostly senior adults who are considered high risk for contracting the virus.

“We have had to think long and hard about our coronavirus response. Such a hands-on ministry requires connecting with people on a personal level. We are hoping things have improved by Christmas, but we will be adhering to all social distancing regulations, taking temperatures, wearing masks and so on,” Parr said.

Keith Brown, Parr’s supervisor and Ministry Center Director for the Shelby Baptist Association, said, “the changes are necessary. We expect the pandemic has increased need in the county significantly, a lot of people are unemployed and will need help more than ever to provide Christmas for their families.”

The current crisis depleted the usual amount of volunteer labor that helps Parr in the necessary preparations and, with the implementation of many changes this year, a majority of the responsibility has fallen squarely on Parr’s shoulders.

“Rebekah works late until the job is done, sometimes even with her kids sitting in her office or helping decorate the Christmas Gift Shop. I always admired her for that. She is a devoted mother and manages to balance that while taking care of so many other people,” said Anna Richardson, a former intern of Parr’s.

“Rebekah is a very dedicated and selfless worker. The Christmas Gift Shop utilizes over 500 volunteers. Rebekah not only handles the many administrative duties involved with the operations; she coordinates the efforts of all of those volunteers,” Brown added.

Parr said, “Even though the physical gifts will not last, if they are introduced to a relationship with Christ, that will last; if they are connected with a church body then they will have a support system in the community.”

This Christmas season will present many challenges to many families but Parr’s efforts to keep hope alive in her community with the Christmas Gift Shop ministry will provide many Christmas miracles this season. The pandemic has rocked the economy and touched the lives of everyone in the country, this holiday season will need heroes, like Parr, to spread hope and joy in the midst of one of the toughest years in history.