Faith Leaders: How To Handle Hardship Over Holidays

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Christmas is supposed to be a joyous time spent with family and friends. But for many people, it's hard getting into the holiday spirit when you're going through financial or personal hardship. Host Michel Martin speaks with Samuel Lloyd, Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, and Pastor Rudy Rasmus of St. John's Downtown United Methodist Church, to hear their message for people going through hard times this Christmas.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now it's time for "Faith Matters." That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And as we noted earlier, it is Christmas Eve and for those who observe, it is meant to be a joyous time of the year, filled with gifts and food and holiday parties - all the things that, as the song says, make the season bright.

But for many people, the holidays come with anxiety, maybe even sadness. This year, many people are struggling with financial problems, and others are dealing with loss.

So because this is the season of hope, we thought we'd call upon two faith leaders for their perspective on the holiday blues. The Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd is dean of the Washington National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C. He joins us here in our Washington, D.C., studio.

Also with us from member station KPFT in Houston, Texas, is Pastor Rudy Rasmus. He is the senior pastor of St. John's Downtown. That's a church he co-pastors with his wife, Pastor Juanita. And, of course, he joined us very frequently in the past to talk about ethical issues. And so we're pleased to have him with us once again.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us

Reverend SAMUEL LLOYD (Dean, Washington National Cathedral): Great to be with you, Michel, thank you.

Pastor RUDY RASMUS: (Senior Pastor, St. John's Downtown): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So Dean Lloyd, as we mentioned, it can be a tough time of year for many people, particularly in this economy. Often, there's a lot of emphasis on gifts and giving. And so for a lot of people, that can be particularly challenging. And according to a recent American Psychological Association survey, this year, 61 percent of Americans cite a lack of money as their top holiday stressor. So I'd like to ask you: Are you hearing that from the people with whom you deal?

Rev. LLOYD: I sure am. And, you know, I have a dear friend who's a therapist who says Christmas, in general, is the most emotionally loaded time of the whole year.

So we start off with a big overlay of expectations about what Christmas is supposed to be and how we're supposed to behave, and what kinds of presents we're supposed to give and what kinds we're supposed to get. So that's a huge load we're carrying, anyway.

Then you put in the thick of that what has happened to the economy, what's happened to people who have lost their jobs, and trying to figure out: How do they somehow express the love they want to give to people they care about when their resources are so limited, and they're feeling so stretched and pressed? It's a tough time.

MARTIN: It's a tough time, also, for, I think, many of the people who are on the other end of that unemployment story. Often, we talk a lot about the people who have lost their jobs, but then there's also the stress of people who had to be the bearer of that news. And I'm wondering whether you've experienced that yourself at the Washington National Cathedral.

But have - are you hearing also from employers, for example, who are feeling guilt about having to let people go at a difficult time of year - or throughout the year, for that matter?

Rev. LLOYD: Sure, absolutely. And it's been true at the Cathedral, and we've had to, in the past couple of years, let some people go. You know you are inflicting significant pain and struggle on people whom you care about, and there's a little bit of a survivor guilt. I still got my job, and others don't. So one of the questions they want to ask the church is: How can we here, at the Cathedral, make some response? Even when this isn't happening to us, we see it happening all around us.

MARTIN: And Pastor Rudy, the same question to you. You're the pastor of a very large church in Houston, and you know you have wildly varying circumstances there. What are you hearing from people?

Pastor RASMUS: We are right now seeing an alarming increase in young men and women who are now on the streets, which is also a byproduct of the breakdown in the economy, families no longer being able to keep it together. And absolutely, we have seen it across the board.

Now, from an employee's standpoint, it's been very difficult, through this current economic time, to really just maintain. People are having to decide between going to church on Sunday, or using that gas to get to work on Monday.

It's a really challenging time for the faith communities that provide services to people in need, and it's been really tough.

MARTIN: What do you have to say to people who are facing such a challenge?

Pastor RASMUS: Well, you know, one thing I'm helping people to understand is that we really do have to manage our expectations in and around the holiday season. Something my family and I did maybe five years ago or so: We just stopped exchanging gifts, and started really focusing on each other.

MARTIN: What about you, Reverend? What is your word of hope to people, or comfort to people who are so distressed at a time like this? Particularly for their economic circumstances, which may be very new for some people. What's your word?

Rev. LLOYD: One of the things that we talk a lot about is how the story of Christmas is really the story of God becoming poor. The fundamental story is God chose to come to be born to a small family in a backwater part of the world, drifting with the powers of the Roman Empire, shifting them around, trying to make their own life, overwhelmed by what was happening to them, not knowing how this was all going to turn out, confused by these divine messages telling them things were going on.

So to feel overwhelmed and out of place and even marginalized is to know something of what the Christmas story is really all about.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with the Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd and Pastor Rudy Rasmus. We're talking about people who may have the holiday blues. They're two faith leaders, and we're getting their perspective on this issue.

I just want to play a short clip now, from a young man named Ernest Champell. He's a journalist living in L.A. We knew we were having this conversation, so we kind of put the word out on Facebook to say, gee, you know, are other people experiencing this? What's on your mind, that you might like to pose a question to our two guests?

And this is what Ernest Champell had to say. He's just gone though a breakup, and this is very much on his mind right now. And I'm sure this is something that a lot of people are experiencing. So here it is.

Mr. ERNEST CHAMPELL (Journalist): This year, it kind of hit me because I think: I don't have that special someone anymore. And that's been tough on me. And I'm looking for someone to help me move forward mentally because it's all in my head. It's not only in my head - it's in my heart, also. I feel it physically. It's a physical pain, which is the worst thing.

MARTIN: So Pastor Rudy, I'll start with you. This - I'm sure you've heard this before. There are people who have suffered various losses at this time of year, and for some reason, it feels particularly painful at this time of year. What would you say to Ernest?

Pastor RASMUS: You know, the first thing I would suggest Ernest do is make a list of what he does have - you know, focusing on the bounty of, really, blessings, for the lack of a better word. I would doubt if this young man is completely alone.

MARTIN: Reverend Lloyd, what do you think?

Rev. LLOYD: The key thing to do is to know that you aren't alone, as Pastor Rudy says, and to take some initiative and responsibility for stepping out. That's what church communities are for at this time of the year.

MARTIN: So finally, Dean Lloyd, if I - if you don't mind my asking; I think you'll be preaching this weekend.

Rev. LLOYD: I will.

MARTIN: Can we tempt you to give us a little preview of what your message might be?

Rev. LLOYD: The big picture, especially for a time like this, is the amazing story Christians have to tell - is that the creator of the universe decided to come and live our lives with us. And so my challenge, always, in Christmas sermons is both to cherish this beautiful story of what happened once, but to be on the lookout to where Christ is being born. And you'd better look in the poorer places and the struggling places for the surest signs of where Christ is going to be.

MARTIN: Pastor Rudy, what about you? Can we tempt you to give us a little bit of a preview of what you'll be preaching this weekend?

Pastor RASMUS: I'm just encouraging our community to find a need out here, and begin to work on filling that need - which will immediately eliminate us focusing on our own needs.

MARTIN: Pastor Rudy Rasmus is the senior pastor of St. John's Downtown. That's a church he co-pastors with his wife, Juanita. It's in Houston, Texas. He joined us from member station KPFT in Houston.

Here with us in Washington, D.C., the Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd. He's dean of the Washington National Cathedral, and I thank you both so much for joining us, and Merry Christmas to you both.

Rev. LLOYD: Thank you, Michel. Merry Christmas.

Pastor Rasmus: Thank you. Merry Christmas to you, too, Michel.

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