Nearly 50 members of Wesley United Methodist Church have come to Kmart this week, paying $20 to $200 on layaway accounts of Christmas toys, said Michael Sosby, the manager of the Martinez store.
Another 25 or more have paid layaway accounts at Ruben’s Department Store in downtown Augusta.
“They just keep coming, more and more of them,” said Jeff Gorelick, the owner of the store. “It’s an incredible thing they’re doing.”
Some pay $20 to an account, but others close out the account entirely.
“They paid a lady’s layaway yesterday. It had $115 left for a handbag she had been paying on for four months,” Gorelick said. “She started hugging me and crying. It was the greatest thing.”
Customers are often shocked to hear the news, Sosby said.
“When we call somebody, it’s usually because they’ve missed a payment. They don’t like hearing from us,” he said. “We say, ‘Merry Christmas! Your layaway was just paid off anonymously.’ There’s a real long pause. They can’t believe it and don’t know what to say.”
The Rev. Greg Porterfield, the pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church, said he first read about the idea of “layaway angels” in a news story out of Michigan three weeks ago.
“I was touched by it,” he said. “I thought, ‘You know, we could do something like that.’”
The church already had a similar program in place, called Random Acts of Christian Kindness, but better known as RACK. For the past eight years, the program has provided church families with $20 to give to someone in need.
“We realized that this is the end of the season and if people haven’t paid off gifts now, they’re probably not going to be able to,” Porterfield said.
He hopes the gestures encourage both church members and those who receive a little help this Christmas.
“Each one of us can do something significant, particularly when we’re inspired by Christ,” Porterfield said. “It is a fulfilling experience to be a part of something larger than yourself.”
If the church decides to repeat the program, Gorelick said he wants to be the first to donate.
“The owners, we’re Jewish, but we think this a wonderful thing for the holiday season,” he said. “It’s a rough world out there. They’re doing a good thing.”