Speaker by Various Artists

Christmas Spirit

by Diane Robertson

Over the years Christmas has been a time of rituals in our family. We begin December with the purchase of an advent calendar and recount the Christmas stories as each day on the calendar is marked off. We have a live Christmas tree, usually selected by my husband and traditionally at least two feet taller that can possibly fit into the lounge.

Decorating the tree involves a traditional family debate turning into a strong argument about whose turn it is to place the star on the top of the tree. This argument is always resolved by agreeing that we will write down who placed the star this year and whose turn it is next year. Each year we fail to do this which allows us to maintain our traditional debate the following year.

Each year we attend Carols by Candlelight and Christmas Eve Service and each year reminisce on the times children have fallen asleep at the communion rail or while they have been servers. We return home to open a single present to celebrate Christmas day.

Christmas Day includes extended family, traditional Christmas dinner, a long siesta before the evening meal.

Each year as we have celebrated the birth of Christ, our children have developed a strong sense of being involved in family and community. They experience the world with a sense of excitement and hope.

Many of the children we see at the Mission experience different rituals at Christmas. Their Christmas stories are of families where there is no money to purchase advent calendars, Christmas trees and decorations. Children do not experience the telling of the Christmas stories or the spiritual rituals or carol singing. Sadly many children in Auckland will have no expectation of Christmas dinner or family celebrations.

The stories of families coming to the Auckland City Mission at Christmas are stories of despair, of parents in tears telling us that they have no money for the day to day necessities, parents knowing that once again this Christmas their children will be disappointed. The children tell stories of violence and abuse, results of the frustration and hopelessness that that families experience at this time of year.

For these families, Christmas is not about celebrating the birth of Christ, for them it is a time of the year when their failure to provide for their children is highlighted by radio and television, in shopping malls and advertisements.

Statistics tell us that during the Christmas period there is an increase in crimes of violence, abuse and suicide. We see the results of this at the Mission. Many families in our communities do not celebrate the joy of Christmas but are overwhelmed by hopelessness and despair.

Each year the City Mission works with thousands of families throughout Auckland. In the two weeks before Christmas we will distribute more than 15,000 Christmas presents to families. Hundreds of Christmas hampers are prepared for families to enable them to have Christmas dinner.

On Christmas Day, 1,000 people will share the 'City Mission' Christmas dinner. Every guest will receive a present from Father Christmas but more importantly we will share a sense of community. Families, children, people who are elderly and people who are socially isolated will be part of our huge family celebration at the Auckland Town Hall.

The Mission works throughout the year to provide excellent service and powerful advocacy to marginalised people in Auckland, in many different ways.

In the past year, emergency food and clothing, bedding and furniture have been given to thousands of people in need, and work undertaken by our Crisis Care team to find long-term solutions to problems faced by families.

The Mission's Drop-In service provided over 35,000 cups of tea and coffee, free clothing and bedding, and assisted people with accommodation and mental health problems.

The Emergency Food programme distributed donated food and supplies to 70 Auckland foodbanks and community agencies.

Each year hundreds of people pass through our residential drug and alcohol Detoxification service.

Our mobile Community Support team works with three different client groups: isolated elderly, people with housing difficulties, and people recovering from alcohol and/or drug addictions.

In Herne Bay, the Mission operates a respite, convalescent and palliative care hospice for people living with HIV and AIDS. Herne Bay House is the only service of its kind in New Zealand.

People do not choose to be ill, they do not choose to be unemployed. Our clients do not choose to come from ethnic minority groups, nor do they choose to live in poverty. Children from these families do not choose to be marginalised, to miss out on educational and social opportunities that ensure they are unable to participate in a responsible way.

The children of beneficiaries and low income earners do not choose to be born into impoverished circumstances. They are born with the promise and potential any child has at birth.

The Government has acknowledged that 3 out of 10 New Zealand children live in poverty. For many Auckland children, this means sleeping in overcrowded, damp conditions, falling behind at school due to illness and poor nutrition, missing out on sports and other recreational activities because of a lack of money, and living with the threat of serious diseases such as meningococcal disease and whooping cough. In fact, the health of our children now ranks among the poorest in the developed world. Many New Zealanders perceive poverty in its absolute form as seen in third world nations but the concept of relative poverty is still not well accepted or understood here.

The families we see daily at the Mission really do live in poverty - they are poor - poor in monetary terms - asset poor in terms of belongings - educationally poor, socially poor and frequently spiritually poor.

It is easy to blame individuals, to say that we must all take responsibility for our actions, to insist that everyone gains full time employment. The reality is that for many in our community there are extremely limited opportunities for changing their lifestyles. The issues do not sit in isolation. Living in poverty leads to stress amongst family members, stress related symptoms, lack of self-esteem and a feeling of alienation from the rest of society. For people experiencing these feelings, breaking the cycle can often seem hopeless.

The City Mission believes that communities need to take responsibility for all the members of their community. The City Mission is evidence of a community response to the social needs of the Auckland community. A response made possible by the generosity of many members of the Auckland community through donations of goods and money, and by the committed and highly professional staff of the organisation.

As we begin our own preparations for Christmas this year, and reflect on the promise of the new born Christ, let us remember our responsibility to our extended family of the community and work to ensure that the promise and potential of each of our children has the opportunity to be fulfilled.

Note: You can donate online to the Auckland City Mission Appeal here.