Looking for Jesus at the Mall

Since Santa Claus was on break, Cherie Shelor and her baby son had extra time to soak up the holiday atmosphere.

It was one of the last shopping days before Christmas last year and Santa's photo line snaked into the heart of the 200-plus stores of the Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem, N.C. The longer Shelor waited, the more she tuned into the mixed signals around her.

"This is THE mall -- the biggest in this part of the country -- so this is THE Santa," she said. "I got to listening to what the children were saying to their parents and what they were saying to Santa. ... I was shocked. I would have never talked to my mother like that. It was all `Get me this' and `Get me that' and `I want,' `I want,' `I want.' "

Just before they reached Santa's throne, Shelor had an epiphany that sent her home determined to change things for her family and perhaps even for others. While many talk about keeping Christ in Christmas, she vowed to try to get Jesus into the mall.

"I looked up there and I thought, `Just who is this man in red? If this is Christ's birthday and we say we're Christians, then why is Santa the star of this show?'," she said. "I mean, here we all were, lined up, telling our children lies about Santa and doing just what the world tells us to do."

As a new mother, Shelor understood that parents want keepsakes to mark the Christmas season and the growth of their children. The question was how to get Santa out of the picture and Jesus into it. With help from her pastor, she decided to offer to take photographs of children kneeling, in costume, before a baby in a manger. Planning ahead for 1995, Shelor called the mall right after Christmas. Eventually, she ended up talking to national management.

"They turned me down, real quick," she said. "The mall people said that if they let Christians do something like this ... then they'd have to let in the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses and everybody else. It would be circus. You know? ... They said they had to avoid anything that looked like politics or religion."

As it turned out, even Christian store owners weren't anxious to go head to head with Santa. Finally, the managers of a Zondervan Family Bookstore -- across from the mall -- agreed to let Shelor and company set up in their parking lot.

That meant finding a portable building that could handle weather changes. After weeks of hunting something affordable, a business man donated an 8-by-12-foot shed. Shelor and her husband, Carl, gathered weathered wood at the family homestead in the Virginia mountains and built a stable inside the modern shed, adding lots of straw, a hand-made manger and two stuffed sheep. A supporter from church made colorful robes in four sizes.

"We tried finding some figures of Mary and Joseph, but they all looked fake," she said. "What we ended up with is a picture that real focuses on each child and the baby-doll in the manger."

The cost is $1, which pays for the film. Each photo comes with a candy cane and a Bible tract that focuses on salvation and the Gospel of Luke's Christmas story. Business was slow, this year, and publicity efforts drew a mixed response.

"I got this letter from one boy that was just perfect," said Shelor, laughing. "He wrote, `If that's what YOU believe Christmas is all about and that's what YOU believe about Santa, then that's OK. But don't try to force your beliefs on me, OK?' "

The goal for 1996 is to get into the mall. Shelor knows that renting a temporary space would cost thousands of dollars, which means finding one or more major donors.

"Call me a radical, but I'm not giving up on this," she said. "The Apostle Paul wasn't afraid to go where the people were to get his point across. He wasn't scared to preach in the marketplace. ... That isn't selling out. That's getting in there and trying to deliver a message that people can understand."