Each day of the Last Minute Toy Store at the Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church in Nashville, there might be 50 volunteers -- and there might be 400.

Doc Hooks, the coordinator of the event, is prepared for both.

“We’ve done it both ways,” he said. “And it almost works better with 50 than with 400. … But I have bad feelings about turning away anyone who wants to help.”

It’s a big job, since those volunteers will distribute 20,000 gifts, along with books, oranges and candy canes, to 1,400 families over four days. The helpers, who arrive for orientation a little more than an hour before the doors open for the giveaway, include members of the church, residents of the surrounding community, and individuals and groups from across the city.

They greet guests, shop with recipients, sort and stock toys, offer security for the overnight crowds, carry bags to cars, translate into Spanish and help with child care.

But the most important duty is to treat the low-income shoppers without paternalism or judgment.

Those involved say the congregation sets a strong example of respect and dignity. Many of the church members know what it means to be poor. And the event has been going on long enough that volunteers understand that they’re expected to show respect and care for those who may not be as well off as themselves.

“Everybody really is respectful,” said Sara Stessel, a longtime volunteer with her husband and two children. “And the guests are so grateful. You might only have one or two who gets really picky…. It’s a great way for us all to see how fortunate we really are, a way to help without just writing a check.”

The orientation, offered by Hooks and the Rev. Paul Slentz, focuses less on theology and more on practical advice for the day ahead. Volunteers are encouraged to keep the lines moving (40 guests shop during each timed segment), partner with someone more experienced if they’re new, stick with their assigned tasks and watch for potential problems.

But more than anything, they’re asked to be kind.

“We’re here to serve people that are less fortunate,” Hooks said. “And as the day wears on, you might find yourself getting tired or short. Don’t lose focus. One of us may be the first person a guest sees, and another might be the last, but that guest will remember both -- and everyone in between.”

The involvement of volunteers -- whether at the toy store or at any other time of year -- doesn’t just mean seeking out people who can give and asking them for help. In keeping with the church’s posture on acceptance of all and building community, the focus is on welcoming those who want to take part, finding the best fit for their gifts, and then setting an example for them to follow.

“Hopefully, they come in with the right attitude,” Slentz said. “But all of us bumping into each other in this little church offers an incarnational expression of God’s love.”