A mountain of disposable diapers sits in the front of the sanctuary at First United Methodist Church in Billings.
Just about halfway through a four-week Advent campaign, the downtown church has collected 15,000 diapers. The Rev. Tim Hathaway isn’t surprised.
“Our congregation is just so generous when it comes to these kinds of things,” he said Thursday. “We do Angel Tree and all kinds of other avenues of giving at Christmas time.”
The impetus for this particular project came in October, when Hathaway and youth pastor Brian Hunter attended a city-sponsored conference that connected the faith community with area service providers. The panel event was designed to seek solutions to help the poor in Billings.
One of the speakers was Lisa Donnot, executive director of Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley. The organization helps homeless families with their immediate needs and works to get them on solid financial footing.
Donnot shared an anecdote about a young mother who called her in desperation. The woman, who wasn’t a client, couldn’t drop her baby off at day care without a supply of diapers. And if she couldn’t drop off her child, she couldn’t go to work.
But she also wouldn’t get her first paycheck for a couple of days, and so couldn’t afford to buy diapers. Donnot told the woman to leave the baby at the day care and she’d drop off the diapers.
Family Promise goes through an estimated 5,000 diapers every three months, Donnot told her audience, totaling anywhere between $600 and $800.
“Brian and I looked at each other and Brian said ‘that’s something we could do something about,’ ” Hathaway said.
The diaper drive dovetailed into a series of sermons Hathaway preached in the fall titled “10,000 reasons.” The idea, Hathaway said, is that he and his congregation have so many reasons to give thanks to God.
“We are blessed beyond measure, but just like a pebble or droplet of water falling into still water, the ripple effects go out over and over again,” he said. “When we extend a blessing to others, the ripple effect happens 10,000 times over.”
Hathaway and Hunter thought it would be great if the church could gather 10,000 diapers during Advent, to wrap babies in love. The diapers would be presented to Family Promise on Christmas Eve, a tangible demonstration of the congregation “reaching out to babies in this community and to their moms,” Hathaway said.
On Nov. 23, Hunter preached about the idea. By the following weekend 7,000-plus diapers had already been deposited at the church.
After a second week, the total more than doubled.
“We’re onto the next 10,000 reasons, and so we’re hoping and praying for at least 20,000-plus diapers by the time Christmas Eve comes,” Hathaway said.
About 350 people attend the Sunday morning service, which means each member already has donated nearly 43 diapers each.
“We are blown away by our incredible congregation, and they’re so enthusiastic and so supportive,” Hathaway said.
Hunter, who took the lead in the drive, got sidelined this week with surgery that he’s recovering from. So Hathaway is carrying on with the drive, but giving credit to Hunter and the members for the success to this point.
First United Methodist Church has more than a passing interest in Family Promise. It is one of 25 congregations in Billings that works directly with the nonprofit.
The church partners with First Congregational United Church of Christ to help the homeless clients. First Congregational houses the families on a periodic basis and FUMC helps with volunteers, food and other necessities.
Diapers can be a huge cost to those families, Donnot said in an interview on Thursday. One baby might go through 100 diapers a month, or 1,200 the first year — an entire month’s salary for some people.
With diapers donated to Family Promise to help those families, she said, it frees up money for other needs.
“It gives us more opportunity to focus that money on life skills training and budget training to help parents sustain their independence in the future,” Donnot said. “So it’s a true blessing.”
Helping the homeless seems right in line with the Christmas story, when Jesus was born in a manger in a cave. Jesus is God incarnate, Hathaway said, but he also was born an infant who had to have his diapers changed.
“That’s the idea about all this happening during Advent,” he said. “It’s about Jesus, and by extension, about all the babies around us who have very human needs.”