Producers at Odyssey Networks faced skepticism when they first approached Reading, Pa., about doing a Christmas special in the city.
Some residents and leaders assumed it would be yet another exposition of Reading’s problems — its poverty, crime and drugs — broadcast for the world to see.
But that wasn’t the story the New York City-based religious media coalition wanted to tell. The result is “One Christmas Story: People Rich in Spirit,” airing at 11:35 p.m. EST Christmas Eve on CBS.
The aptly named Hope Lutheran Church, in the city’s most impoverished neighborhood, is the setting as a congregation gathers in the bedecked sanctuary to listen to the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth, with local choirs and choral groups providing a festive and diverse musical backdrop. Interspersed throughout are vignettes featuring residents who find joy in Christmas despite their struggles, and the volunteers and social-service organizations that help them out.
“This is not a story about poverty, about trouble, about hopelessness,” said the Rev. Eric Shafer, senior vice president of Odyssey Networks, a multi-faith media organization that produces religion-themed content for television, the Web and other platforms. “This is a story about hope, that people of faith have hope.”
Reading, a city of 88,000 about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was known for its manufacturing and railroads, then gained fame as an originator of the outlet mall. More recently, the city found itself in a different kind of spotlight when the Census Bureau released data in September 2011 showing more than 40 percent of the population lived in poverty — the highest share of any city in the nation with a population of at least 65,000. (A slight decline in the poverty rate dropped Reading to sixth place this year, with Camden, N.J., taking the top spot.)
The news didn’t come as much of a surprise to service organizations that had seen an increase in the number of people seeking help. But it still felt to many like the poverty numbers presented an incomplete picture of a resilient city that is much more than the sum of its problems.
“A lot of people reacted angrily, because we don’t feel as though we are poor,” said Mayor Vaughn Spencer. “So there was kind of a backlash.”
Odyssey itself had followed the story of Reading’s decline in an award-winning online documentary released a few months after the city was named the nation’s poorest. The documentary caught the attention of CBS executives who approached the media coalition about producing the network’s annual Christmas Eve show.
Because of the publicity surrounding the poverty data, “we had some initial resistance from the people of Reading,” recalled Shafer, 62, who grew up outside the city and whose mother taught at Reading High School.
But Odyssey officials reassured Reading that, while the program wouldn’t sugarcoat the city’s issues, it would focus on how people are leaning on one another — and their faith — to overcome challenges. And, of course, it would be a celebration of Christmas and its message of faith, hope and God’s love.
“It’s going to really help show the real spirit of this community,” Spencer said.
The program will air commercial-free in David Letterman’s slot.