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June 14, 2012

Odyssey Networks to feature Reading, Pa., in Christmas special

After being named the poorest city in the U.S. just one year ago as a result of the recession, Reading, Pa., will be cast in a bright light during the 2012 Christmas season. During a May 14 press conference at Hope Lutheran Church, Reading, it was announced that the town of 80,000 will be the setting for a TV special titled One Christmas Story: People Rich in Spirit.

The CBS special, which is scheduled to air at 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, will be produced by Odyssey Networks. The ELCA is a partner of the New York-based multi-faith media organization.

In 2011, Odyssey Networks produced Faces of Poverty: Life at the Breaking Point. The documentary followed Mary Wolfe, pastor of Hope, and three families as they struggled to make ends meet in Reading. According to the 2011 census, 41 percent of residents in Reading live below the poverty line.

This year's Christmas Eve special will focus on the town's journey from the depths of poverty to "hope and renaissance," according to an Odyssey Networks news release. Thanks to Wolfe's support and determined efforts since Reading was deemed the poorest town in the country, the majority of the content will be filmed at Hope, the main location of the initial documentary.

Mary Dickey, the network's vice president for communication, said the special will feature "a gathering of local families, providing shelter to the homeless, sharing a meal with the hungry and giving to those in need."

Eric Shafer, an ELCA pastor and senior vice president of Odyssey Networks, played a crucial role in getting the CBS time slot. He contacted a former colleague, Jack Blessington, head of religion news at CBS, and was offered the 11:30 p.m. slot. Shafer said it was an easy decision to accept the popular time. "This was, as you can imagine, an amazing offer for us," he said. "It is a 59 minute, 20 second production with no commercial interruptions. Four to 5 million people have watched past Christmas Eve CBS specials."

With the time slot in place, Odyssey Networks had to find material and funding. Maura Dunbar, Odyssey's executive vice president of programming and content, suggested the team return to Reading as a follow-up to its award-winning poverty piece from 2011.

This proved to be another easy decision due to Shafer's strong ties to the town. "I give this all back to God, really," he said. "As someone who grew up in Berks County, whose mother taught for many years at Reading High School, I care about my home city."

Funding is about one-third of the way complete after the Collegiate Church of New York City issued a $50,000 grant for the production, as well as another $50,000 grant for Odyssey to help alleviate poverty in Reading. The congregation is a member of the United Church of Christ, a full communion partner of the ELCA.

"This was a complete, moving surprise to all of us here at Odyssey," Shafer said. "It is not often that our work, telling stories of people of faith making a difference for good, produces a direct gift to help others. We were and are deeply moved and thankful."

Fundraising continued following the press conference with an event at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading. 

Jeremy Ott, a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, is The Lutheran magazine’s 2012 summer intern.

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