While Christmas shoppers comb their local malls and stores in search of the right gift for their loved ones, a Methodist megachurch pastor is reminding his congregation and those within hearing distance that it's clear what's on the wish list of the one who has given the world the reason for the season.
"I am struggling with coming up with a good idea for a gift for Carolyn this Christmas," confessed Mike Slaughter, lead pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, referring to his wife of 37 years.
"Thankfully Jesus makes his wish list clearer than Carolyn's," he added just a week before Christmas Eve.
For the past six Christmas seasons, Slaughter has been encouraging members of his church to spend only half as much as they would normally spend on their own family's Christmas and to bring the rest in for a Christmas Miracle Offering to serve the needs of people in Sudan's Darfur region, which has been in a state of humanitarian emergency since 2003.
U.N. officials say up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes since the latest conflict in Darfur began in 2003. Overall, the U.N. estimates that roughly 4.7 million people in Darfur - out of a total population of roughly 6 million - are still affected by the conflict, which has spread over the border to eastern Chad and the Central African Republic.
After reading about the 20-year civil war between North Sudan and South Sudan and the tragedy unfolding in West Sudan, where Darfur is, Slaughter felt compelled to act in 2004 and challenged all of Ginghamburg's more than 4,000 attendees that Advent season to remember that "Christmas is not your birthday! It's Jesus' birthday."
"So what kind of gift do you give Jesus on his birthday?" the megachurch pastor posed. "He has given us new life, forgiveness, healing, recovery, purpose, restoration, healthy relationships and eternal life, and this list doesn't begin to cover the expanse of God's love and grace. What can I possibly give back to God who came as a baby and was thrust into the experience of the oppressed refugees of the world?"
For Slaughter, it's clear.
Citing a verse from Matthew 25, Slaughter highlights Jesus' mention of whatever being done "for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine" as having been done for him.
And, citing from James 1, the pastor notes that religion "that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
"Isn't this really called regifting? Aren't we just giving back a little of what God has so abundantly given us?" he wrote in his personal blog this past week.
Since January 2005, Ginghamsburg has invested $3.7 million into three humanitarian relief projects in Darfur, collectively known as The Sudan Project. As a result, the project has seen nearly 22,000 students enrolled into its education program, 171 schools built or rehabilitated, 194 teachers trained, and one whole town "revived."
The project, accomplished in partnership with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), has also put thousands of families back into the farming business, and fed tens of thousands since its inception, among many other accomplishments.
Despite the amount of good that the church has been doing in Sudan, Slaughter's emphasis on the African nation has taken a toll on the congregation, some of which believe that the church should reach out more to the poor in their own community and that Christmas should be a season of happiness, with the focus being on the birth of the baby Jesus and good times with family and friends.
To his critics and to those concerned, Slaughter notes that the church has served thousands in the Miami Valley area of southwest Ohio and actually spends four times the amount on local ministry than it has invested in The Sudan Project.
"We (Ginghamsburg) … must continue to expand this work without fail," he says.
Slaughter also recognizes that Christmas does celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus.
"Without the birth, there would be no sacrifice on the cross. Without the cross, no resurrection. Without the resurrection, no hope," the Methodist pastor notes.
But Slaughter sees no loss of focus on Christ in the church's commitment to action in Darfur.
"What better way to celebrate Christmas than to demonstrate the sacrificial mission of Jesus on Planet Earth to those without hope, the children, women and men of Darfur," he asks.
With that and other points in mind, Slaughter makes it very clear what he will be giving Jesus this year and continues to encourage his congregation and others to "regift" for Jesus as well.
Become producers of God's blessings within the Christmas season, and not simply consumers of "stuff," he urges.
Aside from The Sudan Project, Ginghamsburg attendees have shown their commitment toward ending the crisis in Sudan through participation in rallies, awareness raising activities on college campuses, and a Christian Communications Network (CCN) broadcast called Not On Our Watch in partnership with activist John Prendergast, who with co-author and actor Don Cheadle published a book of the same name.
Tipp City, where the church has been since 1994, lies just north of Dayton.