More than 100 members of Centreville United Methodist Church (CUMC) will bring cheer to the homeless, this Sunday evening, Dec. 15, by singing Christmas carols at the motels housing them.
Penny Croll, CUMC's assistant director for children, began the event four years ago. The church's Family Committee had tossed around the idea of caroling, but knew that the Girl Scouts did it at local nursing homes. So Croll suggested they carol for the homeless in the motels along Route 29, because no one was doing it for them.
"Through WFCM [Western Fairfax Christian Ministries] and Our Neighbor's Child, they're getting Christmas presents," she said. "The whole point of this is to share with them the message of Christmas."
FACETS (Fairfax Area Christian Emergency & Transitional Services Inc.) houses the homeless in three motels there. Besides the music, CUMC carolers also bring homebaked cookies and fresh fruit with them, plus small gifts with a Christian message, such as Advent calendars or candy-cane pins to wear upside down, symbolizing "J" for Jesus.
"It's to share fellowship and the fact that Christmas is about Jesus' birth — and to let the people in the motels know that they're not forgotten," explained Croll. "It's such a nice thing, and we've had some wonderful experiences there. Some people are thrilled to have us, and some come and join us caroling."
During the year, area churches provide these people with hot meals, on a regular basis. CUMC does it, the third Tuesday of the month. The caroling is an extra treat. Some 100-125 people — from babies to 70-somethings — participate. And as more people joined in the singing, each year, CUMC was able to add other locations, too.
For the past three years, it's sang at Barros Court, off ODay Drive in Centreville; last year, it added the Serve homeless shelter in Manassas. This year, CUMC's entire Youth Group — some 40 teens plus adult leaders — will serenade at the Quarry Station senior-living facility in Manassas. It's operated by Wesley Housing which CUMC helps sponsor because it builds affordable housing for low- and moderate-income persons.
The carolers perform about 1 1/2 hours and then return to the church for hot chocolate and doughnuts and more caroling — this time, indoors, with a piano. Since Croll is assistant director for children, she says the event also benefits the church youth.
"I feel it's important because it opens the kids' eyes to how others are living in the area," she explained. "Some of them don't realize that there are poor people living not far from us. And I think, the more aware we are of them and their situation, the more we can help them."
Croll said some of CUMC's children go to school with the homeless, and going to the motels allows them to be "more compassionate and understanding of their situation" when the youth see how they're living.
"We do lots of food and clothing collections for FACETS and WFCM, but this is hands-on," she said. "Most of the people in the church never get a chance to see the actual recipients of their collections, so it's even more meaningful to be able to see the face of a child getting the cookies you're bringing."
Croll said it enables the children to talk with the homeless and let them know they care about them and that "they're loved by God." After all, she said, "We could very well be in the same circumstances that they are." She said the motel caroling also helps the participants "get rid of the stereotypical picture of what a homeless person is." It's also a way of being neighborly. "We need to take care of each other," said Croll. "That's what Christmas is all about."
Because of the economy, illnesses or job losses, many local families are having tough times right now; but in this affluent area, that fact can sometimes get lost. "This is one of the richest counties, and it's easy to live in your own, sheltered world," said Croll. "People don't realize that there are others living at poverty level, just a few miles away from them."
Hopefully, she said, taking part in the caroling will inspire CUMC's youth to becoming interested in helping their fellow man in other ways, too. And, said Croll, "They can see that they don't have to be grownups in order to help."
Barb Shaiko, CUMC's director of missions, is also actively involved in this project. "As Christians, we're celebrating the birth of the Christ child, and we're sharing this joy by caroling," she said. "[Motels and homeless shelters] are places where people don't usually carol, and we feel joyful about doing it. You feel like you're doing something to share the hope of the season."