These are troubled times.
As the world seems to spiral out of control, it would be easy to imagine that there is no hope, no joy and certainly no love to be found anywhere.
On Saturday, Dec. 12, residents of San Diego County found all of the above – hope, joy and love – along with a healthy dose of Christmas spirit at the four different Toys for Joy sites scattered throughout the county. For 19 years, Toys for Joy, a holiday outreach program founded by the Rock Church, has provided free toys, clothing, groceries and personal services to those attending the event.
At the Rock Church East County site, over 750 volunteers welcomed some 5,200 families for the second year. Some families began waiting in line at 4 a.m. the day of the event. Over 5,000 toys were given away.
Volunteers Hani and Iman Guirguis came to Toys for Joy with a specific purpose – reaching out to the Arabic-speaking people of East County, particularly in El Cajon, which has a Middle Eastern population of approximately 75,000. Hani is the co-pastor of the Last Harvest Church, the largest Arabic Evangelical church in El Cajon. He has served in that role for the last three years. The church currently has an attendance of 150 people at its prayer meetings, bible studies and Sunday services.
For the last four years, Hani and his wife Iman, who were born in Egypt, have also been involved with the Rock Church. Hani serves as a volunteer chaplain and member of the Pastoral Support Team. Twenty-six volunteers from Last Harvest Church served in various roles at this year’s Toys for Joy event.
Hani, born in Egypt, has lived in the United States for over 30 years. Iman, also born in Egypt, has lived here for 26 years. “My sister was living in the United States for 10 years. She did my immigration paperwork and I came here legally in 1990,” said Iman. She met her husband in the United States.
In addition to acting as translators, “Our evangelism team went out for three weeks in a row to spend time on Main Street and invite people to the event,” said Hani. “They connected with hundreds of Arabic-speaking people, both Christians and Muslims.” Iman said that they also did a great deal of outreach to the Arabic community by sending out emails and using social media like Facebook.
Their efforts paid off. She estimates that at least 2,000 Arabic-speaking people attended the event. Hani said that numerous people prayed and accepted Jesus as their savior. “In addition, a Muslim lady also prayed and accepted Christ and took a bible. There are more stories but these are just a few.”
Jwan Nequla, one of the volunteers from Last Harvest assigned to the Altar Call area, had the opportunity to pray with many of the Middle Eastern attendees. “I was talking with the Muslim families and giving them bibles. They were accepting it with pleasure and thanking us for the gifts we were giving their children,” she said. “Almost all of the people who were from Iraq asked us to pray for their families still living in Iraq.”
Nequla was born in Iraq. She fled the country with her family over 10 years ago and moved to India after learning she was being targeted for death. She left everything behind. Almost two years ago she moved her family to the United States.
“I did not want to come to the United States, but God wanted me here,” said Nequla, now a teacher’s aide for the El Cajon district. “He gave me a vision to serve him in this country. He told me that he had people in this land that he wanted me to reach.”
Hani approaches his task of reaching out to those of Middle Eastern descent with great passion and purpose. “About two years ago,” said Hani, “I was spending time with the Lord in a Middle Eastern country and I started sobbing. The Holy Spirit kept speaking into my heart that Jesus loves Muslims just like He loves those Christians who don't know Him personally yet. As I was sobbing for a good two hours, I felt the Holy Spirit washing away all the barriers and softening my heart to love the Middle Eastern people through the eyes of Christ.
“It is so important to reach those from the Middle East with the Gospel because many of them have never heard of the grace of God. When I travel and visit Christian families that don't know the Lord as their savior and share with them a story from the Bible about the love and grace of God, they respond, ‘we have never heard this before.’ That is why it is so important to reach out to those who I can connect with from both a cultural and a language background.
“I believe that we live in a time where many Muslims are searching for the truth. Muslims have 99 names for God but they are missing the two most important ones: God is love and God is a Father. I have a heart for reaching Muslims and Christians alike with the grace and love of Jesus Christ.”
For Iman, Toys for Joy represented “an opportunity to be part of such an awesome event with the amazing people of the Rock Church. I have seen the heart of the Rock Church in reaching all of San Diego. Also, this gave me and others from the Last Harvest Church the opportunity to reach Arabic-speaking people who would probably not come to a church service if they were invited.”
Senator Joel Anderson, Mayor Bill Wells, Mayor Pro Tem Bob McLellan, and Councilmember Star Bales had the opportunity to tour the event and hand out toys in the toy room. Each were blown away at the number of volunteers that were gathered to serve the community and thankful for the help it would provide the families that are struggling in East County.
These are just a handful of the many lives that were impacted at Toys for Joy this year. As groups danced and played games in the Family Stage area you could feel the energy and excitement. Children were beaming as they walked away with a special toy and some even with a bike. Parents carried groceries to help feed their families. All with the purpose to share the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Rock Church East County Pastor Ricky Page said so many people attending the event were blessed due to the kindness and generosity of the East County volunteers. “I heard time and time again that people felt welcomed, they felt at home and they felt loved,” said Page. “Rock Church East County (volunteers) you were known by your love.”