Eric Shafer: O Little Town of Reading

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. --Romans 12:12

This is the Biblical verse you find when you walk into the 125-year-old Hope Lutheran Church in the northwestern neighborhood of my hometown, Reading, Pennsylvania. It is a reminder of what Reading needs a lot of these days: hope. Just across the street from the church is a bodega that neighbors tell Hope's pastoral staff is not only a hangout for the lost and the lonely, but a "drug" store as well. Some days hope can seem in short supply.

It wasn't always that way.

I grew up outside of Reading and my mother taught at Reading High School for more than 20 years. I fondly remember Saturday afternoon movies at any one of the numerous theaters along Penn Street. As I grew older, Reading changed and became a regional shopping outlet center. I know those times were far from perfect, but it is easy to remember them as "the good old days." It also was a time that we blissfully took for granted. It was easy to assume that the good manufacturing jobs and outlet traffic would continue forever. In a sense, we even took hope for granted because many of us felt immune from the ills of the larger world.

Last fall, I read the sad news that Reading had been designated the poorest city in the USA with 65,000 or more residents. According to the 2011 census, 41 percent of residents in Reading live below the poverty line. My colleague Mary Dickey and I shared this with our fellow staff members at Odyssey Networks here in New York City and this led us to film and produce a short doc -- 'Faces of Poverty: Life at the Breaking Point." The video followed the Rev. Mary Wolfe, pastor of Hope, and three families as they struggled to make ends meet in Reading. 

Around the same time I had lunch here in New York with Jack Blessington, head of religion for CBS News. Jack and I had worked on a Christmas Eve special several years ago and he asked if Odyssey would be interested in the Christmas Eve CBS national time slot for 2012. I thought to myself, "Is the Pope Catholic!" Of course we were interested.

When I brought this opportunity back to our CEO Nick Stuart he eagerly accepted Blessington's gracious offer. As we thought about what to produce for Christmas Eve, our EVP Maura Dunbar suggested we go back to Reading, but not for another story about poverty. This time, we decided to come back to Reading and tell a story of hope in the midst of very tough economic times, a story of how the birth of Jesus Christ brings great hope to humankind, even people living in a city that has been hard hit by the national economic crisis.

The story of Reading is about revitalization and recovery and what can happen anywhere when people of faith begin to work together. Through our media research and filming in the City of Reading, we have found that residents are indeed resilient, willing to overcome life's challenges, and hopeful for the city and its residents.

Inspired by the project, Odyssey board member the Rev. Robert Chase went to the board of the Collegiate Church in New York City and requested a grant to help Odyssey with this production. Not only did the Collegiate Church offer us a production grant, they approved an equal additional amount to combat poverty in Reading! Now Reading non-profits can apply online at for a grant to help in their poverty relief efforts!

When Chase first shared the news of this double gift, I was moved to tears. For me, it does not get much better than this -- to be able to showcase my home city as a place filled with good people working together to improve and lift up their community in a national television program and to have that effort result in direct aid for poverty relief!

Odyssey's CBS Christmas Eve special is entitled, "One Christmas Story: People Rich in Spirit." It will celebrate the true spirit of Christmas through the words of the Gospel, glorious choral music and the unique character of the community of Reading, Pennsylvania. Although based at Hope Church, the program will include music and traditions from a number of the different ethnic groups and Christian congregations in Reading as well as a Christmas meal from the Reading Salvation Army Center. We will see the parallels between this celebration and that of the liturgy -- the homeless Holy Family finding shelter, the wise men bringing gifts and the important role of the humble shepherds. We will interweave stories from community members that illustrate the stories of the gospel, highlighting those who have struggled and been lifted up by the support of others, those who are still in the struggle but find hope in their community, and those who work to help their fellow citizens and their city.

Recently, several of us from Odyssey Networks' staff traveled to Reading to announce this television special and hold a fund-raiser for it. We were also pleased to announce the Collegiate Church's special grant to alleviate poverty in Reading. My 96-year-old mother, who taught at Reading High with current Mayor Vaughn Spencer (who I was in Boy Scouts with during the early 1970's) was able to attend the announcement. It was a very good day!

We are seeking additional support for this production (we need to raise at least another $100,000). We will be back in Reading for production later this summer and fall and return for a national premiere on December 10 at the Reading IMAX Theatre.

Odyssey Networks thanks CBS and the Collegiate Churches of New York for getting the ball rolling on this inspirational message for humanity, emanating from the story of the birth of Christ, making it immediate and relevant to our world today. If you would like to help us in this project, I'd love to hear from you.

Look for our video crew this summer and fall on the streets of Reading and tune in to CBS on Christmas Eve -- this will be a story of the hope that Jesus Christ brings to us all, at Christmas and always, in Reading and everywhere.

Taken with permission from