Shannan Upchurch holds a box of giveaway items as her boys, Malik, 5, center, and Michael, 6, right look at their new toys from the Noel Project. At left is Jaron Smith, 3.
The Blade/Lori King
The Noel Project, promoted as “Toledo's biggest Christmas party,” has been a Christmas tradition for more than 30 years. It came into being because the Rev. Tony Scott, pastor of the Church on Strayer in Maumee, wanted a new bicycle when he was a child but his family could not afford it. That's the story Kristian Brown of WTVG Channel 13, who is a member of the Church on Strayer and served as co-emcee of this year's event Dec. 21 at the SeaGate Centre, told when she introduced Pastor Scott to give a message.
“It was on his heart to make sure that young children, no matter what situation they're in, they could have access to a brand new bike,” she said.
Every year the Noel Project gives Christmas to many families who can't easily afford to buy a bicycle for their children. This year about 5,000 families, or almost 2,000 people, were recipients. More than 200 volunteers made the event happen. Pastor Scott said that his hope is that the families are in improved situations next year and can then volunteer for the Noel Project and help others.
Besides giving bicycles—this Christmas more than 450 children got bikes and helmets—the Noel Project also supplies winter clothing, boxes of food including turkeys, and more than 1,000 toys. Plus, a Christmas tree farmer heard about the giveaway and donated trees to families.
Cosponsored by the church and United Way, as well as about a dozen other listed people and organizations, the project isn't just a giveaway. It also is an evangelization opportunity. Pastor Scott said that United Way “screens all the families to help us so that people don't go to Salvation Army and then come here, or go to two or three places. They're a huge blessing and so easy to work with. We have a partnership; they know what we do, we know what they do, we respect each other. It's just been a great arrangement for us.” In other words, United Way affirms the need, then the church gives a Christmas party with a strong religious message that the families hear while waiting to go through the gift line. Musicians sing religious songs, some people give testimonials, and all the entertainers speak of Jesus.
Santa might have been there, or at least his costume was worn by a young man, but Jesus' name was said most often from the stage. “It's more than just the bikes,” Ms. Brown said at the beginning of the event. “It's about spreading the love of Jesus to all of you today.”
“Everybody say, 'Jesus is the reason for the season,'” Darin Scott, the lead singer of DayOne from Nashville—and Pastor Scott's son—said when his singing group was about to perform. DayOne has been a part of the Noel Project for 24 years; DayOne followed the Church on Strayer's praise band and sang just before Pastor Scott's message.
Pastor Scott spoke about Jesus as a spiritual savior who would forgive confessed sins. The pastor was “asking you today: get up out of your seat of sin that you chose for yourself, sit down in the seat that Jesus has chosen for you.” He led a prayer for forgiveness and encouraged those who joined the prayer to go to a Bible-teaching church, to pray by talking to Jesus, “and then sit and listen to what he says to your heart.”
The emcees made the families aware that there was a prayer booth in a back corner of the hall.
Pastor Scott said after the event that 220 filled-out cards indicated that people “received” Jesus or rededicated themselves to Christianity; a promotional video put the number at more than 400.
In the Christmas gift spirit, the children in the SeaGate Centre were also on Pastor Scott's mind. When the families went behind the stage to receive clothes, food, bikes, and toys, the first stop was for toys. “We want them to be excited and to be pumped up, so we give them the good stuff first,” Pastor Scott said.
The Noel Project “is probably more needed today than in my lifetime,” Pastor Scott said. It is “more needed because of the economy, the slow growth in jobs, and when that happens those who are less fortunate suffer the most, which is just so sad and it breaks my heart. So we do everything we can.”
And the children ride along.