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A cardboard Christmas

Leytonstone United Free Church didn't use tinsel and trees to decorate its building this Christmas,  but recreated two cardboard Bethlehem scenes instead. It provoked reflection and conversation in the community, writes Gemma Dunning  



‘There’s someone at the door!’ a teenager cries as the smell of Christmas dinner cooking follows me out of the house and I find myself standing in the street in my Christmas PJs talking to a couple passing by. Our church window has caused them to stop and take photos as they walk their small grandchild before lunch. We talk about the decorations, and what we are doing in the church on Christmas day (they're slightly confused by my morning service attire.) They share that they are visiting their daughter who lives down the road. They say they haven’t seen anything quite like our window before and it’s making them think…

Leytonstone3This year instead of tinsel and trees we brought together cardboard boxes from our congregation members' homes and recreated two cardboard Bethlehem scenes, one for the front window and the other inside the church. Inspired by design work ‘Born Into Poverty, Changed History’ by CPO, our leadership team decided to put the idea into action, engaging members of the congregation from all ends of the age spectrum to recreate the city. For us the scenes represent our solidarity with our friends who are homeless as well as a response to the climate emergency we face.

As a small church we are passionate about putting our faith into action, hosting a weekly nightshelter and playing our part in stewarding God’s creation. It is a pleasure to get to know people and a privilege to develop relationships with our nightshelter guests, many of which last beyond the five months of the nightshelter season. In really knowing people, everything changes. Our guests are not ‘someone’s son or brother’; rather, they are someone. Someone made in the image of God, known and loved by God.

This must impact both our connection with them and our commitment to challenging the systems and structures that continue to see a rise in homelessness in our borough. If our cardboard city helps people to reflect on this and calls people to action, then perhaps our collective voices will be heard by those with power to make vital and necessary changes.


We couldn’t have foreseen the responses and engagement this year’s Christmas decorations would generate, but we are pleased to see it has provoked reflection and conversation in our community. We have seen a rise in foodbank donations and an increase in volunteers. We have been part of many conversations on how people can cut down on the use of plastic as they celebrate, and how they can stand with those who are homeless reflect the real good news of Christmas.    

Over in the East End the word is alive
In tower blocks and coffee shops the message survives
That Jesus is good news for the WHOLE world to thrive

For the Word is made flesh
He’s a saviour in which to confess
Yet at Christmas our buildings we simply over dress

The Word isn’t in tinsel or shiny new plastic
No matter how much our Instagram looks fantastic
Working together we are dreaming new tactics

No baubles to hang, or tinsel to tack
Working together we are stripping it back
Recalling the reason, not getting side tracked

Hidden amongst the normal and plain
In the ordinary things thrown out in disdain
The light of the world we will seek to explain

Born of blood and real flesh
Amongst the pain and the mess
Bringing hope and freedom to those held oppressed

Over in the East End the word is alive
In reducing and reusing our planet can survive
For Jesus is good news for the WHOLE world to thrive. 


Gemma Dunning is the minister of Leytonstone United Free Church 


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Baptist Times, 03/01/2020
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