Pastor reflects on ‘Advent Conspiracy,’ Christmas giving to aid Puerto Rico

By the Rev. Corey Fields

From an early age, my antennas were raised to the commercialization of the Christmas season, thanks to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The characters’ dialogue, too mature for their supposed age, drifts into laments about this kind of thing. Charlie Brown expresses disgust that his dog and sister are trying to get money. Lucy says, “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big Eastern syndicate, you know.”

But, most years, I continue to get sucked in, at least a little bit, by the rush, the busy-ness and pressure to find good gifts. Then I stumbled upon a loosely organized movement called “Advent Conspiracy,” which calls Christians to a better way. According to the website, the idea was “born out of Christmas dread” in 2006 by pastors Rick McKinley, Chris Seay and Greg Holder. By the end of each year’s Christmas season, they felt they had missed Christmas’ true meaning.

Their conversation likely went something like this: At that first Christmas, God gave of God’s self relationally in time and space. How do we rediscover the wonder of the incarnation and give of ourselves in a similar, more meaningful and relational way? They decided to “conspire” to subvert what Advent had become and to reclaim the season’s hope, peace, joy and love.

They developed four “tenets,” if you will. They wanted to see believers, during the Advent season, (1) “worship fully,” making the season a reverent celebration of what God did in Jesus. Then, they wanted to challenge people to (2) “spend less” and (3) “give more.”

While the latter two items seem contradictory, the idea is to pare down one’s spending on material items and focus on giving gifts that are meaningful and relational, such as making things together or giving gifts that connect us personally. At a church I previously served, some families took this idea seriously, with inspiring results. One mother created a “coupon book” of various ways that she and her son could spend time together. It transformed their relationship.

Finally, the Advent Conspiracy pastors wanted to challenge people to (4) “love all” by taking the money they didn’t spend on gifts and giving it to people truly in need. They focused on a startling statistic: Americans spend hundreds of billions of dollars on Christmas every year, but it would take only a small fraction of that amount to accomplish such acts as providing clean drinking water to every person on Earth.

The three pastors took this idea to their churches, and it took off. Somewhere along the way, they got their digital media wizards to produce a video. The video went viral, garnering millions of hits. An edited and updated version of the original video can be viewed on YouTube. Today, the website features ideas and resources for churches, including additional videos.

I find this kind of focus much more inspiring than becoming angry about Starbucks cups (which, in case you were wondering, Christians are unbelievably already doing again this year). In light of this movement and the devastating loss this year from natural disasters, I’m issuing a challenge to my congregation. It’s something you may want to consider, too.

This past year, hurricanes ravaged parts of Texas, Louisiana, Florida and, most severely, Puerto Rico, whose infrastructure was virtually wiped out by Hurricane Maria. The federal response to Texas and other mainland areas has been relatively quick and more effective, but certain government agencies have been inhumanely neglectful of Puerto Rican citizens in the aftermath of the storm.

The data are incomprehensible: Puerto Rico’s actual death toll, estimated by media contact with funeral homes, is many times higher than the official count. Millions remain without water and electricity. According to one report, doctors are having to perform surgery with light from their cellphones, and children are screaming from hunger. Although Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they have found themselves in situations far more dire than what seems possible on the mainland.

That is the reason that, this year, I’m going to conspire during Advent for Puerto Rico. My wife and I are not getting each other Christmas gifts. We will, instead, donate to American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ (ABHMS) “Rebuilding, Restoring, Renewing Puerto Rico” initiative, which seeks to raise $1 million to restore the island. (As of the end of November, just more than $450,000 had been raised.) I will challenge my congregation to consider whether they and their families are led to donate to this initiative as well. When a donation is made in someone’s honor, he or she will receive a wooden block to symbolize rebuilding, along with an explanation of the initiative.

Sure, there are many other worthy causes and needs that could be the object of our Advent generosity, but I call out Puerto Rico this year because of its connection to our country and its dire situation. If you were to point out that this campaign will be only a small piece of the puzzle, you would be right. If you were to point out that there remains much to do that only the federal government and its agencies can afford and accomplish, you would be right. Nonetheless, Puerto Ricans need our voice and advocacy to call our leaders to account.

I am also mindful that we don’t want to overshadow other giving opportunities, such as the Retired Ministers and Missionaries Offering that churches also receive in December, as well as many other causes we may support in our communities. But I am hopeful that the challenge of competing offerings will be solved by redirected Christmas spending.

Although ABHMS’ initiative represents only a portion of what is needed and could be done, I consider it worth our consideration to keep Puerto Rico on our minds and in our hearts this season, as we seek to worship fully, spend less, give more and love all. Because much need exists in the world, God may be leading you to do something different. Regardless, this season, my church will celebrate that God came to us in a dark corner of the world, in lowly circumstances and in a desperate situation. I believe that God is still to be found there. I believe that the church is called to be found there.

The Rev. Corey Fields is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.