By Rachel Logan

Operation Christmas Child 01
John and Fen Wang of Chinese Christian Church of Maryland drop off 107 boxes of toys and toiletries to Berwyn Baptist Church


Dusk was falling outside the Berwyn Baptist Church in College Park, but spirits were not. It was Nov. 22 — nearly the last collection day for Operation Christmas Child — and this church was one of only four drop-off locations in the county. 


Three tables standing end-to-end stretched from the church’s lobby to  the sidewalk, where volunteers retrieved donations curbside. Youth volunteer Rachel Maturi, who had come with a two-family group when doors opened at 3 p.m., called out, “We’re going to need the trolley cart!”


Church member and volunteer Sandy Kiernan took stock of the delivery, clipboard in hand. When the car trunk opened, revealing more than 100 shoeboxes and plastic tubs, she exclaimed, “Praise the Lord! We are definitely going to need the cart!”


Maturi, Kiernan and a host of other volunteers were organizing toys, school supplies and personal care items for Samaritan’s Purse, a 50-year-old nonprofit organization that spearheads Operation Christmas Child and provides aid to children in more than 100 countries throughout the world.


“People pack more boxes in a pandemic — they give more,” Kiernan said.


Berwyn Baptist has had to revise their traditional celebrations this season. The church’s services were entirely virtual for four months over the summer, but in-person services resumed in June. Prince George’s County capped religious gatherings at 25% capacity on Nov. 15, and Gov. Larry Hogan set the statewide cap at 50% on Nov. 20. Berwyn Baptist, typically at 10% capacity, didn’t have to change their procedures to fit the restrictions.


Church members have collected donations for Samaritan’s Purse for years, but it’s one of the few Christmas activities still in the works this year. The traditional Christmas musical has been canceled, as has the annual hanging of the greens to decorate the sanctuary. The church wasn’t able to host Thanksgiving dinner, and there won’t be a cookie social. 


Like Berwyn Baptist, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church is not letting limitations on gatherings stop the celebration of the season. Rev. Tim Johnson said that he has plans for a larger Christmas Eve, but within the capacity restrictions.


“Indoors, we’re limited to 30 people — outdoors, we can accommodate a lot more,” he said. 


Johnson hopes to hold a socially distanced service early on Christmas Eve, weather permitting. He aims to light the night with lanterns, luminaries and campfires. “We want as much light as possible,” he said, adding, “There’s some sadness that we’re not in the church, but we appreciate being together. Jesus was born in a barn, not in a beautiful stone church.”


Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Johnson is grateful that he can continue to serve his fellow worshippers. Reflecting on these challenging times, he said, “We do what we can with what we have.”


Down the road in Hyattsville, Crossover Church now directs members to its sister location in Odenton, where in-person services are still held. Visitors undergo a temperature scan and health screening before entering the building. 


The Hyattsville location’s main holiday outreach is usually a fee-free Christmas boutique where underprivileged families can register to search the church for free gifts and clothing. With the building now closed, Crossover came up with a creative way to carry on the tradition.


Associate Rev. Deborah Evans said, “This year, we’ll have the Christmas store on wheels.” Participants will drive up on Dec. 12 and pop their trunk to receive bags of gifts, clothes and goods from a local food pantry.


“We’ll make it festive from the outside,” Evans said. The church building, with its stone bricks and a tower, is akin to a castle already.


“We’re so thrilled, so blessed that we’re able to do it this year,” she said.