On Sunday, Dec. 18, indigenous youth in the Eugene area will get, perhaps, their first glimpse at a Santa Claus who looks like them, thanks to a partnership between local schools and the new-start United Methodist ministry, BeLonging Space.
Solte Santa of Portland – solte being a Salish word for warrior – will visit the Chifin Native Youth Center. to meet with the children and youth whom the center serves. Naphtali Renshaw, director of BeLonging Space, has been coordinating this event and could use more support to make Christmas for these children a little brighter.
The BeLonging Space a new start ministry supported by the Crater Lake District Church Extension Society of the Oregon-Idaho Conference.
“We’re collecting toys for kids of all ages and putting together a holiday shop for kids to shop for the adults in their lives,” said Renshaw.
The holiday gift shopping will go along with a meal that is being set up. Children and families will have a chance to have a photo taken with Solte Santa.
Solte Santa is the son-in-law of Mrs. Colleen, an Athabaskan Alaskan native living in Portland, and is the evolution of native veterans in the area hosting various Santas at their Christmas events throughout the years.
There’s been a Lakota Santa, Crow Santa, Wasco Santa and more – each dressing in a combination of Santa gear and regalia that reflects their culture.
Colleen Payne, who serves as Mrs. Claus alongside her son-in-law, said he is a veteran and he loves serving in this role, but he doesn’t like people to know his real name.
Payne said she started getting involved years ago when her children were younger because she thought every child ought to be able to afford a photo with Santa. Giving Indigenous youth and their families the opportunity to meet a Santa that looks more like them has also been important.
“The kids are so excited and are in total awe when he comes in wearing a bustle and bells on,” she said. said. “It’s amazing how many parents will come up to Solte Santa. They want to be up there (getting their pictures taken), too.”
Renshaw said this collaboration of Solte Santa comes from a partnership she’s been developing with the Chifin Native Youth Center. She’s helped write grants for cultural project funding and has connected the center with churches such as Wesley UMC in Eugene to assist with gift cards for the low-income and sometimes houseless families they serve.
She and the center’s director started talking about hosting a holiday meal.
“I asked, ‘how do you think people would respond to an indigenous Santa?’” Renshaw recalled from their conversation. “At the time, I didn’t know who indigenous Santa would be.”
Renshaw started combing the internet and was pleased to find Solte Santa lived in Portland, and Payne and her son-in-law welcomed the invitation to come to Eugene.
Payne said children love it when Santa comes in wearing a bustle and bells. He doesn’t look like any other Santa.
“We try to incorporate some of our culture with it,” she said. “We try to teach them that this is Santa, and this is how you would dress him.”
Renshaw, who was hired last year as a Eugene-area innovator by the Crater Lake District Church Extension Society, has been busy building relationships and partnerships between the community as well as local United Methodist Churches. She named her ministry BeLonging Space out of a desire to build a ministry where all felt welcome, included, and represented.
Solte Santa is an extension of that mission – making reparations, sure, for the church’s history of colonization – but also celebrating.
“We need to celebrate how the Indigenous community is flourishing in this area,” Renshaw said.
She described it as shalom. Because shalom occurs in making right some of the wrongs society has made.
“Jesus wants us to be in communities that have been silenced,” she said. “This is the way we can join in the invitation of shalom. It’s not charity. It’s shalom.”
Payne sees invitations to such events as an opportunity to create smiles.
“To see the awe in everybody’s face, it’s beautiful. It just makes me want to do even more because everyone appreciates it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot to smile.”
BeLonging Space working on other diverse Christmas experiences
When I think about Jesus– and all the miracles he performed, the stories he told, and the powers that he challenged– it all seems so big. But this time of year, our eyes are drawn to a manger, a pile of hay, and the arms of a teenage girl, cradling her first born. Later on when Jesus was in the throws of ministry, crowds constantly pressing in– each person yearning for a moment of recognition that would result in their healing, a group of children wandered past the tall and important grownups surrounding Jesus– and despite his disciples protests, Jesus not only welcomed them, but told the important grownups that their way– the way of shuffling eagerness and complete certainty in reaching out and being recognized, was the way of the kin-dom.
What does this have to do with Indigenous Santa, or Black Santa, or Queer Santa? When children reach out, they should be able to do so with the certainty that the person they are reaching out to will welcome and recognize their authentic self. As people of faith, we are compelled to see and welcome and recognize the image of God in the one who is reaching out.
The child in line to have their picture taken with Santa will see a Santa that looks like them– maybe for the first time. But the events themself say to the resilient communities– Black, Indigenous, Queer, “We see and welcome your authentic self. In this space, you belong.”
A holiday extravaganza will take place at the headquarters of the Eugene-Springfield NAACP– as a collaborative effort between the NAACP and the BeLonging Space. Donations of gingerbread house making supplies, candy canes, and small (new) stuffed animals are appreciated. (Contact me for more info.) Check out the BeLonging Space Facebook site for updated information.
A Rainbow Holiday Celebration will take place later this month. LGBTQIA+ families and allies are welcome to enjoy warm pancakes, hot cocoa, get their picture with Santa, and take home a small gift! Donations towards decor, pancake supplies, new fuzzy socks, and other gifts are appreciated. This celebration is particularly meaningful to the queer community as it follows on the heels of violent protest a few weeks ago at a drag queen story time that featured a young performer. (Please reach out to learn how you can support LGBTQIA+ neighbors in the greater Eugene-Springfield area) Contact me for more info.) Check out the BeLonging Space Facebook site for updated information.
To contribute to these events, contact Renshaw at email@example.com.