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Interview with Kh. Gigi Shadid: Teaching Service Through HUGS

Khouria Gigi Shadid, wife of Fr. James Shadid of St. George Orthodox Church in Houston, TX, is a mother of three, a school teacher, and former youth director. Her passion is teaching with music, and she has produced five educational music CDs to date. Several years ago, she developed the Matthew 25 HUGS program, or Hands Used for God's Service, in cooperation with the Archdiocese's Department of Christian Education. The goal of the program is to nurture generous spirits in the children of our church schools, with targeted activities and lessons at every grade level until children graduate from high school. asked her to explain further.

Where did the idea for the HUGS program come from, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

My cousin, Georgina, is known for giving great hugs. One day, we were talking and she began telling me about how much she wishes she could go to the NICU at a hospital and just hug on the little babies there. I told her that her loving hugs are one of the gifts that God has given her and that she should share those hugs with as many people as she can. As we talked, Georgina expressed a desire to do more with that gift... but what? The essential question here was: What else can I do with my hands to serve God and to spread His Gospel message of love to my neighbor?

I got to thinking and praying about it, and this HUGS idea was born. We use our hands to give hugs, and we can use our hands in many ways to serve others and give them not only physical hugs, but spiritual hugs as well. Hence, the acronym "HUGS" was born: Hands Used for God's Service. How can we all use our hands to serve others and embody Christ's commission in Matthew Chapter 25, focusing on those who are: hungry, thirsty, naked, prisoners, strangers, and sick?

The mission of the HUGS program is to engage our church school children in acts of service, both small and great, to those in need. We want to instill in our children a spirit of gratitude and service, for Christ said, "Do it to the least of these my brethren and you do it to Me" (Matthew 25:40).

Describe the basic components of the program.

Part of the lesson here is for teachers to first discuss and share some important questions with their church school students.
• How can we use our hands and our feet to serve God?
(at home, at school, at church, on the field, at work, etc.)
• What does it mean to give a "spiritual" hug to someone?
• Who are "the least of these"?

Each year, we would like our church school classes to participate in a service activity that we have suggested below. It might be a one-time deal, or something a class can choose to focus on throughout the school year. We must repeatedly ask the key question: "How are we using our hands and feet to serve God?" When we use our hands in various ways of service to our neighbor, we are seeing the face of Christ in them.

Pre-K/K: Give hugs to family and friends
1st Grade: Open doors for others (stranger)
2nd Grade: Classroom canned food drive (choose a month) (hungry)
3rd Grade: Serving drinks (i.e. at home, instill spirit of hospitality) (thirsty)
4th Grade: Phone calls to shut-ins during Sunday School (periodically) (sick)
5th Grade: Write letters of encouragement to those in prison (prisoner)
6th Grade: Clothing Drive (i.e. coat drive – choose a month) (naked)
7th Grade: Cleaning the church sanctuary after services
8th Grade: Serving coffee at coffee hour (i.e. once a month) (thirsty)
9th Grade: Shoe drive, new & used (choose a month) (naked)
10th Grade: Be a Greeter once a month/mentor with ushers (stranger)
11th Grade: Food drive (choose a month) – contest with 2nd grade (hungry)
12th Grade: Visit a nursing home or shut in from church; (sick)
Bring that person holy bread and the bulletin

One goal is that from the time a child enters pre-school to when they graduate high school, they will have participated in a variety of service activities addressing various needs.

Why is the element of service such an important part of the overall Christian Education ministry in a parish? How can we help our children to learn to have an attitude of kindness and caring for others?

As Christians, we are called to reflect the image of Christ by doing one of these two things:
1. Be a martyr and give up your life for Christ, or
2. Love your neighbor.

Since we do not live in a country or age of persecution as many of the martyrs did, most of us will face the judgment seat of Christ answering this question: Did you love your neighbor? Education is so important, and understanding the teachings of the Church helps us to grow in our knowledge of our faith. But knowledge will not save us, love will. That is why teaching our children to have a servant's heart and an attitude of kindness and caring is so important. We can help our children learn to be kind and caring by performing those acts as a class and by encouraging it at home and at school.

Is HUGS only used in the Antiochian Archdiocese or are parishes in other jurisdictions adopting it as well?

For now, HUGS is a new ministry of the Antiochian Archdiocese. However, if we embrace this mission of service, and "let our light so shine," we can spread this to other jurisdictions as well. Serving and loving our neighbor is universal and should be a priority for all of us.

Have you received feedback yet on how this is working at the grass roots level? 

Before presenting this HUGS ministry to our archdiocese, we piloted it in my home parish and received positive feedback and encouragement. For example, one of our classes made a phone call to a shut in during Church School. The teacher showed her students how easy it was to pick up a phone and reach out to a parishioner. Even if you can't visit the sick in person, a phone call can make someone's day. This ministry is teaching our children that we can do small things with great love. Opening a door for a stranger is something our first graders focused on, and it taught them to think of others. Children love the smiles they receive from performing that small, kind act. Our fifth grade class teacher had concerns about writing letters of encouragement to prisoners, so we teamed up with the director of Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM) and he helped to give us guidelines. His letter with instructions is available online for teachers to download and print.

The HUGS ministry has been introduced at national meetings in the past year, and in some dioceses, but we must get the word out to our local parishes. There are excellent grade level HUGS posters that have been made, and once they get into the hands of our local parish teachers, it will help familiarize our teachers and parishes. We hope to spread the word via The Word magazine and other publications.

I pray that this interview, too, will help us spread both the word and the "work" of service to our neighbor. May God bless all of our hands as we use them to give HUGS.