TAMPA – Across Tampa Bay, Christian pastors and priests have been working to sound the right note in the Christmas message they’re sharing with their congregations.
On a day widely observed by the faithful, when pews are full and extra services are added, local clergy say that, above all, they aim to shift the focus toward enduring lessons and away from how many gifts are under the tree.
The Rev. Kenneth Stewart, pastor of the Tabernacle of Hope Pentecostal church on Rome Avenue, said he was appalled to see throngs of people camping out in front of stores in the days leading up to Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving, waiting for a good deal instead of spending time with loved ones.
“After the wrapping paper is thrown away, what’s really left?” Stewart said. “I love Christmas, but we have to learn to be grateful for what we already have.”
So, for his church’s Christmas service on Sunday, Stewart invited his father – a missionary in Liberia who is home for the holidays – to talk about his experiences there. Albert Stewart has spent more than three decades in the poor West African country.
“It’s a life-changing experience,” said Kenneth Stewart, who lived there with his family as a child. “People live simpler, but happier. We have so much in America, but no happiness. Over there, they have so little, but they’re so happy.”
In neighboring Pasco County, the Rev. Daniel Kayajan of Dade City’s St. Rita Catholic Church planned to talk about how Christmas traditions centered on giving back can help make the presence of God clearer.
The 1,000-family congregation includes a large Mexican community. On Tuesday, he celebrated Masses in Spanish and English, as well as a bilingual service.
One example of how God can be seen clearer, Kayajan said, is through the “giving tree” that members of the church set up to collect gifts for those less fortunate.
“God is with us,” Kayajan said. “How has God been with us through these last few weeks and in our lives in general?”
At Hyde Park United Methodist Church, the four pastors who preached at Christmas Eve services stuck to the broad theme that the light of the world still shines, even during troubling times such as the loss of a job or the death of a family member.
The Rev. Danny Bennett, the church’s associate pastor, said he planned to talk about a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
“The light of the world still shines in the midst of darkness that seems to surround us, particularly the light of Christ, which we are celebrating entering the world on this night,” said Bennett, who is spending his first Christmas with the church. He previously preached at Clearview United Methodist Church in Saint Petersburg.
“Every year, I get excited to tell a 2,000-year-old story and celebrate the light of the world,” he said.
For his two Christmas Eve services, the Rev. Fitz Conner, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tampa on Zack Street, put a modern twist on the story of the birth of Christ. He said his sermon for Christmas Eve services would be centered around a tailgating analogy and themed “digesting Christmas.”
“I’m going to challenge all of us to put aside the festivities, celebrations and food and go take communion and remember the meal that matters the most is the one we’re having here symbolically,” said Conner, who roots for his alma mater, Florida State University.
“The baby’s going to grow up and be a man and he’s going to get the win. The losers are darkness, estrangement, addiction, alienation, loneliness and hurt.”