Latin Americans Give Jesus for Christmas
Editor’s Note: During this Year of Faith, when Catholics from all walks of life have been called to participate in the “new evangelization,”’ a question naturally arises: What sort of evangelization works? Are there any proven programs, that have demonstrated the power to attract people to the faith?
Last year Crossroad Publishing asked me to address that question: to find successful initiatives in evangelization and collect reports on them. The result of that work is a book entitled When Faith Goes Viral, which is now scheduled for publication on November 1. The book is a collection of stories, drawn from all around the world, about projects that are quite different in many ways, but similar in one: all have demonstrably brought people closer to the sacramental life of the Catholic Church.
By prior agreement with the publisher, the Catholic Culture site has been granted permission to post chapters from this forthcoming book temporarily, one at a time. These chapters will not become part of the Catholic Culture archives; readers who want to refer back to them should plan to purchase the full book.
We have already posted my own Foreword, the Introduction by Father C. John McCloskey III, and chapters by John Burger (on the work of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students), Emily Stimpson (on the Language and Catechetical Institute in Gaming, Austria), and Deirdre Folley (on Mother Angelica and the founding of EWTN). The last of these is still available on this site. We now offer the 4th chapter: “Latin Americans Give Jesus for Christmas,” by Angelique Ruhi-Lopez.
- Philip F. Lawler
LATIN AMERICANS GIVE JESUS FOR CHRISTMAS
by Angelique Ruhi-Lopez
Many Christians lament the over-commercialization of Christmas. A group in Peru is doing something about it by bringing Jesus back into Christmas celebrations and bringing people celebrating Christmas back to Christ.
The program is called Navidad es Jesús, (Christmas is Jesus), an annual campaign designed to bring hope and joy to children in need, through a visit by volunteers who play games, teach catechism, and bring gifts to the children during Advent. The campaign was created in Peru in 1985 and is organized by Movimiento de Vida Cristiana (Christian Life Movement: www.m-v-c.org), an international lay Catholic movement approved by the Holy See. While the largest program by far exists in Peru, Navidad es Jesús can also be found in Costa Rica, Angola, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, and the Philippines.
Navidad es Jesús seeks to evangelize about the true meaning of Christmas: the celebration of Jesus’ birth, who became man for all to be reconciled to God.
The Nativity of Christmas
In 1985, members of the newly formed Movimiento de Vida Cristiana (MVC), were looking for a new way to integrate their faith and apostolic life. As their primary document, “Movimiento de Vida Cristiana: ¿Qué es?” states: “At the center of their faith experience is the desire to live for sainthood, an ardent commitment to apostleship and fraternal and generous giving of oneself in service. These three dimensions express the identity, way of life and scope of MVC.”
The group, which at the time was comprised primarily of university students, was already earnestly trying to spread the word about the true meaning of the holiday by singing Christmas carols at the busy Miraflores Park in Lima. This idea evolved as members also realized that it was important to go beyond offering inspiration, to something more tangible: material help to the needy, and catechesis to the ignorant. The idea grew from what MVC called a “solidarity campaign” to one that also included evangelization, as more and more people outside of the group started to join with members to spread Christmas joy, rooted in Christ.
The original name of the campaign was “No Hay Navidad Sin Jesús” (“There is No Christmas Without Jesus”) but the name was changed shortly thereafter to the more upbeat “Navidad es Jesús.” With the change in name seemed to come positive changes in people’s lives. Francisco Cañola, general coordinator of MVC in Peru, explained that at this point, those involved had a great desire to share the ministry with others; parents, siblings and friends began to get involved. “They started to knock on our door,” said Cañola of the people who wanted to volunteer. “They also started to make changes in their lives, such as putting a nativity scene on their desks at work.” He added: “All this shows a sense of lived experience, and an identity found in Jesus. It’s great for us to help others, but let’s take advantage and live this message of Christmas in our own lives as well. Charity in and of itself is very valuable but we didn’t want it to be just about giving a gift to a poor child. We knew that it needed to help both the beneficiary and the benefactor.”
Bread and Milk and More
In the Lima and neighboring Callao provinces in Peru alone, volunteers bring Christmas cheer to more than 100,000 children during about 200 yearly Christmas visits. There are an estimated 12,000 volunteers who participate annually, not counting those who help behind the scenes.
During a typical Christmas visit, volunteers gather with local children in public facilities, such as schools, to play games and offer gifts. The volunteers might participate in a variety of light-hearted activities to interact with the children, then put on a play explaining the true meaning of Christmas, and distribute traditional Christmas treats of panettone (sweet bread) and chocolate milk, as well as individual gifts for every child. Occasional variations on the visits include separate catechesis for the parents during the children’s activities, creating a nativity scene for each child to take home, or singing “happy birthday” to baby Jesus. Other visits have been to nursing homes, to offer the elderly Christmas cheer. The program varies somewhat in Ecuador, where MVC has run Navidad es Jesús campaigns since 1998. There about 2,500 volunteers serve 15,000 families (about 57,000 people total) throughout many of the country’s rural and marginalized areas to deliver what they call “solidarity baskets” containing rice, sugar, oil, salt, powdered milk, noodles, tuna, chocolate, oatmeal, beans, Christmas bread, and sweets.
Beginning in August of each year, MVC members involved in Solidaridad en Marcha (MVC’s yearlong social service arm in Peru: www.solidaridadenmarcha.org), begin to identify families and areas that would most benefit from a Navidad es Jesús visit. Their link to the Solidaridad en Marcha network is mutually beneficial: Solidaridad en Marcha helps to identify locales and neighborhoods for Navidad es Jesús to schedule visits, while those who participate in Navidad es Jesús can then choose to help people in these areas all through the year with Solidaridad en Marcha. The latter campaign strives to provide for the people’s basic needs, and to provide occasions for evangelization outside the Christmas season.
The typical ratio of children to volunteers is five to one, so in a visit with 100 volunteers (an average number), 500 neighborhood children might be selected for a specific Navidad es Jesús visit. Advance planning helps to ensure a successful visit. Beforehand, volunteers for each visit are broken up into different teams, which handle:
- infrastructure/logistics (further broken down into transportation, materials and security);
- secretarial work (organizing names and ages of children, breaking them up into groups, coordinating volunteers, etc.);
- apostolate (catechesis of both children and volunteers, children’s activities, etc.);
- gifts (refreshments, toys); and
- finances (donations, fundraising, purchasing)
Each of these teams is assigned tasks to be performed before, during, and after each visit. They are all overseen by a site coordinator.
Cañola makes the interesting observation that in Latin America people don’t wait to be trained—or “capacitated” as he puts it—in order to begin work in a ministry. They just jump right in. The level of formation of the volunteers varies, but this does not stop them from wanting to be involved.
So MVC provides the volunteers in-depth manuals detailing what a Navidad es Jesús visit entails from start to finish. This allows even non-MVC members to take part in multiple visits in multiple areas. There is one general manual of logistics (which, among other important details, includes an organized schedule of events to take the guesswork out of planning all the required aspects of a Christmas visit), one for activities and catechesis, one for visual identity (which includes acceptable logos used for consistent branding of all materials and promotional items), and even a appendix of catechetical materials that includes approved handouts, coloring pages, and similar items.
The only requisite for volunteers wanting to plan their own MVC visit is that at least one MVC member with experience in the Navidad es Jesús program accompanies them on their first visit. The following year, non-members may do visits on their own utilizing the manuals, which include easy-to-read organizational charts and flow charts of responsibilities, as well as maps and diagrams that suggest exact staging and set-up of the main hall, offering different alternatives that depend on the site where the visit is held. These detailed workbooks help make sure that the visits retain their Catholic identity and catechetical purpose, and do not degenerate into merely social or social service events.
Christmas Starts with Original Sin
At every Christmas visit, leaders will say many times throughout the day, “Navidad es….” to which the children learn to respond, “¡Jesús!” This is how the catechesis begins at its most basic level. “We help about 120,000 children each year. But we don’t focus on the number, we focus on the message. The focus is on catechesis,” said Cañola. The visit starts with a number of icebreakers (with instructions detailed in the manual), some with religious significance, such as a Christmas Quiz, or others just to warm up the kids, including games akin to Simon Says.
As the day progresses, the teachings go deeper and deeper into the incarnation and Christ’s birth, while still keeping the tone interesting and light-hearted for the children. A puppet show or living Nativity scene on the real meaning of Christmas (four different sample scripts are included in the manual) are at the heart of the catechetical teachings. The manual also includes criteria for catechesis, which insist that the following points be made:
- Adam and Eve misbehaved and disobeyed God. God was very sad but he did not abandon us.
- God is so good that he wanted to forgive us and to do so, he sent us his son, Jesus.
- Jesus is the son of God, who is born of the Virgin Mary.
- The angel Gabriel came down from heaven and asked Mary if she wanted to be Jesus’ mother.
- She accepted and asked what she could do.
- The Holy Spirit came down from heaven and placed baby Jesus inside Mary’s womb.
- Joseph was Mary’s husband and at first, he didn’t know what to do.
- The angel Gabriel appeared to Joseph in his dreams and told him that what Mary said was true.
- Joseph accepted Jesus and loved him very much.
- One day, Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in the census and they could not find a place to stay, so Mary had to give birth to Jesus in a stable.
- The shepherds and the three wise men came to visit Jesus, guided by a star.
After the puppet show or skit, the volunteers engage the children in dialogue about what they saw and heard. They ask questions and invite the children to say a prayer, sing Jesus a song, or give Jesus a gift in their hearts in honor of his birth. The children are then broken up into groups by age (4-5 year- olds; 6-7 year-olds; 8-9 year-olds, and 10 years and up) and are given a variety of coloring pages or age-appropriate activities to drive home the message of Christmas. The volunteers also lead the children in singing Christmas carols and in numerous prayers, including opening and closing prayers, a prayer before eating their snack, and a prayer before the representation/skit of Christ’s birth—all of which are helpfully provided in the catechesis manual.
While catechesis for the children during the visit is the focus, the volunteers also report that they receive formation in the process. “One of the strongest themes of our movement is to live the reconciliation brought by Christ,” Cañola said. “Jesus became man to reconcile all men to God. I can’t really be an instrument if I don’t live what I preach. We have to transmit the message of reconciliation and be men and women who are coherent in our faith. We hope that those who join up with us in Navidad es Jesús don’t miss the opportunity to reconcile themselves with Jesus.”
Johanna Gutiérrez, a young woman in Peru, said her faith was challenged and changed thanks to her participation in Navidad es Jesús: “About six years ago, a friend invited me to participate in Navidad es Jesús. I have always liked to help and I accepted immediately. We began to prepare a campaign for 3,000 children and it caught my attention that everything was very well organized, we had a manual, defined functions. I asked myself who brought this to fruition, what was Navidad es Jesús? My friend explained that it was part of a very large movement called MVC, which helped thousands of children during Christmas.
“She invited me to a large celebration after the campaigns were done and there I met many people who weren’t afraid to express what I was also feeling, the desire to know Jesus better.
“It had been a long time since I had confessed and I was embarrassed that I didn’t even know which words to use to confess but my friend helped me and gave me the strength to do it. That was my breaking point and the priest told me, 'The heavens are throwing a party because a daughter has returned.' I left with teary eyes and began to pray as when I was a child.
“The next year, my friend had to travel and she left me with the task of organizing the Navidad es Jesús visit. Since then, I am in charge every year of organizing a Navidad visit for 3,000 children, recruiting more volunteers each time, because I know there are so many people who, like me, just need a hand and someone who will help me become closer to Jesus.”
Christmas Rings Through the Year
As Cañola explains, all those who participate are called to “service and sanctity.” As such, volunteers often organize Advent reflections leading up to their scheduled Navidad es Jesús visit to combat the busyness and hyperactivity of the Advent and Christmas seasons. Volunteer meetings prior to the visit are a mix of spiritual retreat and logistical preparation. The message that is stressed is that “we do what we do because we are Christian, we are Catholic, and we want to transmit the true reason for Christmas,” Cañola said.
Immediately after the visits, volunteers are invited to continue participating in MVC events, such as Christmas Eve mass, Christmas caroling, praying the Advent wreath together, and more. They are also encouraged to send thank-you cards to the sponsors of their visits and their main collaborators, and are invited to a large celebratory party with all the volunteers in the program.
Because of the sense of community they feel, many volunteers begin to make friends with MVC members. Eventually many join the movement and participate in the community’s activities all through the year. Some are also encouraged to assume leadership roles at the following year’s Navidad es Jesús visits and many do so, because they feel supported and encouraged by the MVC community and don’t feel out of their depth in a leadership position, thanks to the detailed manuals.
“We are committed, faithful lay people that they happened to encounter through Navidad es Jesús,” said Cañola. “In MVC, they find a movement that has life. Many continue serving in the same areas they visited at Christmas and develop a relationship with the neighborhood. People find that living their faith is more than just attending Mass. They find a community of people who live out their faith beyond that.”
Infusing the Mainstream with Grace
The Navidad es Jesús campaign has found innovative and effective ways of penetrating the secular culture. Because their volunteers live the faith that they preach at Navidad es Jesús visits, they are passionate about the message, making them very effective at promotions.
“We find ourselves in a cultural battle,” said Cañola. “Peru is a Catholic country with very Catholic roots, but we are confronted with very secular ideas. Slowly, though, the idea of Navidad es Jesús is taking hold. Instead of pictures of Santa Claus on businesses, we are now finding the Holy Family. Things are changing.”
For starters, governments in small towns and neighborhoods are adopting the phrase, “Navidad es Jesús” in their Christmas greetings and government holiday signs. Radio Programas del Peru (or Radio RPP for short), the largest radio station in Peru, is using Navidad es Jesús as its theme. The main newspaper in the country also promotes the Navidad es Jesús campaign. And Coca Cola in Peru once sponsored a Navidad es Jesús Christmas CD that had widespread distribution throughout the country.
Navidad es Jesús posters are prominently displayed throughout Lima. Many have prayers on them and have contact information for people to receive more information about Christmas. The message on the posters appeals to many readers because it calls upon people to serve others in the face of “the suffering of our brothers in need,” said Cañola. Navidad es Jesús once sponsored a large nativity scene in the center of Lima, and the chief organizer in charge of making it happen, who happened to be Jewish, was instrumental to its success.
“Living nativities” (using actors) are also being conducted by Navidad es Jesús teams in Ecuador. “In 2011, we did living nativities in the streets of the cities of Guayaquil and Manta and were very well received by drivers and passersby as they recalled that the real meaning of Christmas is the birth of Christ Jesus, who became a child out of love for us,” said Erika Chacón Maldonado, director of public relations for Fundación Acción Solidaria (Solidarity Action Foundation), which is run by MVC members in Ecuador and is the equivalent to Peru’s Solidaridad en Marcha.
Many Navidad es Jesús volunteers are also very active in promoting the cause in the months leading up to Christmas. They run a variety of fundraising campaigns, such as selling Navidad es Jesús polo shirts, bracelets, ornaments, and nativity sets. “These things begin generating interest in the program,” said Cañola.
Widespread interest in restoring the religious meaning of overly commercialized holidays has been spreading thanks to the efforts of MVC movement. Because of Navidad es Jesús’ success during Christmas, some volunteers this year started Semana Santa es Jesus (Holy Week is Jesus) campaigns, and others launched spiritual campaigns during Valentine’s Day as well.
A group of employees at a Walmart-type store in Peru who volunteer yearly for Navidad es Jesús approached the organizers and asked them to come into give a series of reflections during Holy Week. “It’s interesting because the message is spreading beyond the parishes and allowing Christ to even enter workplaces,” said Cañola.
As more and more people get involved in the movement, Cañola explained, their friends and acquaintances come to think of them as a representative of their faith and come to talk to them to get their perspective. Canola offers an example: “One employee at a coffee shop I frequent, who I met through Navidad es Jesús, expressed to me one day that she had been cohabiting with the same man for many years and they had three children together but she wanted to get married in the Church. She approached me and asked me how to go about doing this since she knows me to be a person of faith.”
Another related campaign sponsored by Navidad es Jesús to generate greater interest in the group’s work is the annual National Nativity Contest. Navidad es Jesús has teamed up with El Instituto Cultural Teatral y Social (the Cultural, Theater and Social Institute) in Peru to invite artists to create handmade nativity scenes. Retreats and art workshops are offered for the artists, so that well-crafted art reflect its religious roots. Many businesses then purchase the nativities and display them at their offices; others are sold in shopping malls. This is a success in itself, says Cañola, because good religious art isn’t being relegated to small street markets, but is being sold side by side with more commercialized Christmas items in the major shopping malls.
Other Navidad es Jesús cultural ventures have included contests for music, poetry and Christmas stories. Brazil’s Navidad es Jesús program (which is currently found only in the city of Petrópolis) features an annual nationwide Christmas-story contest called “Histórias de Natal." MVC organizes the contest, founded in 2003, as an effort to evangelize the culture. “We receive an average of 250 stories each year,” explained Martín Ugarteche Fernández, who is in charge of the annual contest. “There is a team of 20 people who put this on and help judge the entries, including members of Movimiento de Vida Cristiana, professors and alumni of the Catholic University of Petrópolis, and academics from the Petrópolis Academy of Letters.”
A compilation book including the stories written by previous years’ finalists is now in print, and a second volume will be published in 2013. Histórias de Natal has received official support from the World Youth Day Rio 2013 organizing committee, and the 2012 writing theme coincides with the theme of World Youth Day: "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28: 19) to help young people prepare both for Christmas and the papal visit. Contest submissions have already been received from all over Brazil and the total number of submissions is expected to reach 500 this year. “Histórias de Natal complements the work of Navidad es Jesús,” said Ugarteche Fernández. “Both have as their objectives to evangelize Christmas, announcing a profound spiritual meaning and encouraging people to live in greater solidarity.”
Successes and Challenges
Although it is difficult to estimate how many people—both those who are being served and those who have served—have benefited from their participation in Navidad es Jesús, Cañola counts among the greatest successes of the project the fact that it is “a gateway to persevere in faith.” He explains: “We are grateful for the possibility to enter in the midst of society, raise people up, and bring them to the faith. It permits us to extend a hand from the Church and reach people in businesses and at universities and allow them to have a faith experience that benefits others. There is much joy in this and it is contagious; it is an invitation to live a Christian life.”
For Navidad es Jesús in Costa Rica, the successes have been many. The program has formally existed there since 2005, although prior to that MVC members there were hosting Christmas parties to begin spreading awareness about the true meaning of the season. Today the visits model those in Peru and they generally visit between 5,000 and 8,000 children throughout Costa Rica each year. The community there is also proud that university students organized a Navidad es Jesús visit in 2010 in the neighboring country of Nicaragua, in the capital city of Managua.
“In general, the campaign has been for us an opportunity to take Christ Jesus to everyone, an occasion to share the joy and even the struggles in the Christian life,” said Fabiola Ramirez, who has been involved in Navidad es Jesús in Costa Rica since its inception. He adds: “Through this campaign that we have carried on throughout these 12 years, we have brought joy to more than 80,000 children, we have visited the country’s 12 provinces, from border to border, and we have also been able to meet with our Nicaraguan brothers. Above all, the fruits have been the immense joy in our hearts, not of giving something, but instead Someone: He who is the reason for our true joy.”
Challenges still exist, however. Ramirez admits: “For us, the greatest challenge is at the level of catechesis and evangelization, since society heavily promotes consumerism and materialism, and breaking through this message in the minds of children is complicated. Additionally, it is always a challenge to financially cover the costs of campaign logistics.”
In Peru, Cañola shares Ramirez’s frustration about the cultural battle with consumerism and the inability to reach everyone with the real Christmas message. He also wishes there were more tools, more means, and more ways to reach more people. But even amid some challenges, he said, God always acts. He explained that some Navidad es Jesús visits are better organized than others, and generally speaking, adults have activities planned out in advance whereas younger members sometimes procrastinate when preparing their Christmas visits. At one visit, university students were coordinating a visit for 700 children at a site about two hours away. Although the volunteers did not realize it, only half of the children’s gifts were packed up into the bus; the other half remained behind underneath a table at the university. Fortunately a group of adults were doing a Navidad es Jesús campaign nearby and when they were contacted to see if they happened to have extra gifts, they had more than enough—they had brought more, just in case, and all the children at both sites received gifts.
Cañola also would like to see the campaign taken to Europe. There are MVC members there—primarily in Italy and England—but no Navidad es Jesús campaigns. He thinks these countries could greatly benefit from these campaigns, especially since many people there are in spiritual need and have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas.
During this Year of Faith, Navidad es Jesús organizers want to focus more on the cultural dynamic. They are already in negotiations with Peru’s largest newspaper, radio stations, and other media to have ongoing messages run throughout Peru—especially in places where the group isn’t present—about the project. They want to make sure people don’t forget why this campaign is underway.
“We also want members of this community to be leaven, to be spokespeople for Navidad es Jesús year round,” Cañola said. “Most of our members are busy with work or studies and need to be reminded that it’s not just the children who need the message of Christmas. They, too, need to intensely live Jesus so that others around them may do so as well.”
Angelique Ruhi-López, M.A. is the co-author of The Infertility Companion for Catholics: Spiritual and Practical Support for Couples and is a freelance writer and web editor for the Archdiocese of Miami. She is a wife and the mother of five children. To learn more about Christmas is Jesus, see www.navidadesjesus.org.
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