For twenty-five years, the first Saturday of December has marked the start of the Christmas season for hundreds in Mishawaka with magic and meaning.
In 1996, the United Methodist Men’s group at First United Methodist Church of Mishawaka started a breakfast with Santa for children and families. After a dedicated nine years, this Christmas breakfast evolved to become what it is today: The Greatest Gift Journey, a live nativity (and more) that tells the story of Jesus, the greatest gift the world has known, who journeyed to be with humanity in the incarnation.
In 2008, FUMC hosted 900 people at the journey. In more recent years, that number swelled to 2,000 people.
While the COVID-19 pandemic prevented FUMC from hosting the event in 2020, they were thrilled to be back in 2021. Local health guidelines meant that they had to pivot to accommodate the event to be 95% outdoors.
During The Greatest Gift Journey, shepherds guide small groups from pen to pen to see camels, donkeys, sheep, and goats who welcome pats from little hands and don’t mind the click of a camera. Costumed storytellers at each station tell a portion of the nativity story related to the animals. The journey uses volunteers, big and small, as families with infants younger than nine months serve in one–hour shifts in the nativity.
A few years ago, the team added sensory–neutral journey times for families who need a different environment to experience the event.
The Greatest Gift Journey remembers their beginnings and continues to include an opportunity for children to take photos with Santa, but it’s more than photos for many children. Rev. Rick Taylor shared, “The kids don’t always ask for toys for Christmas. We hear Santa say that children ask for mom and dad to stop fighting or for an ill family member to get well.”
The event is more than fun and play for many adults as well. Five years ago, the team decided to add a prayer station, where guests can light a candle of concern or praise, write a prayer request, or receive prayer from one of the leaders.
“The real essence of the day happens in the person–to–person contact between guests and our servant leaders who are serving as disciples of Jesus,” said Pastor Rick. This year, 70 sevant leaders gave of their time, energy, and efforts. “We see one of our people praying with someone who has tears running down their cheeks as the weight they are carrying in life gets shared as we get to be the hands and voice of Jesus. We see people moved to reverent silence in front of the manger scene as they ponder, perhaps like Mary did at the birth, what this all means for them.”
For FUMC, the months planning for The Greatest Gift Journey is more than worth the effort to faithfully serve Mishawaka. For the children and adults who walk the journey each Christmas, it is a joy to wonder at the greatest gift the world has known, Jesus.