Question of the Day: What About Church Mission During the Holidays?

I asked this question over the weekend:

Is there a way to keep congregations from congratulating themselves for their assorted Mission Projects – especially in the holiday season – when the giving is sometimes (often?) for themselves?

Several years ago, I delivered the gloves, socks, and mittens to our local shelter which had adorned our “Giving Tree” in the church parlor.  People had bedecked the tree with cute pink acrylic gloves and packages of Costco socks.  Not many fleece-lined men’s sizes really, but lots of children’s items.  When I got to the shelter and was guided to the Donations Room, I saw that it was already full.  “Yeah, the donations have far outpaced our need,” the volunteer shared.  “Most of these items were given last year. Too many people buy cheap, child-sized gloves and  socks without realizing that most of our residents are large adult men who need heavy-duty socks and gloves.”

Why don’t donors know this?  Because we haven’t asked.  We like to leap in to help without understanding exactly what is needed.

Several Advents ago, we decided to collect gift cards for those in need rather than buy them presents.  You know the usual drill:  notes on trees or bulletin boards say something like, “8 Year Old Girl.  Size Medium.  Likes Dolls.”  And then someone collects all the presents for The Needy Family and delivers them.  The problem with this begins with humiliation and ends with gifts that don’t fit the recipient – and not only in terms of  sizing.  Imagine that you are a parent that aches over the fact that you can’t afford to replace your child’s too-small shoes, and then strangers come in and Help You.  Yes, your daughter likes dolls, but she likes fashion dolls, not baby dolls – which is what has  been lovingly bought and wrapped for her because a kind church person imagined the dolls she might have liked long ago.

But this is not about what the kind church person wants.  This is about the people who have less than what they need.  This is not about congratulating ourselves on finding a deal on a woman’s sweater for A Needy Person that might not fit that woman’s body or style.

Yes, even homeless people get to have style.  Those who are struggling financially get to have dignity.

Sharing gift cards allows struggling parents to choose their own children’s gifts.  They know what their kids want and need. And then they get to bring those gifts home – whether home is a shelter, a small apartment, or a car.  (Note:  It’s important to use our brains when we give gift cards.  Chain restaurant gift cards might be appreciated.  A person living in a car would probably appreciate gas station cards.  Target and Grocery Store gift cards are always good.  Wii and Blockbuster cards are probably not so helpful if you live on the street.)

This article says more about wanting to help people but not understanding how to do it well.
“Gift cards are impersonal!” we say, but most of us have impersonal relationships with The Needy.  We don’t personally know them, so why pretend we do?  Or better still:  Have a personal relationship with a poor person. Truly be friends.  Walk alongside them.  Make their poverty your own.  This would be the genuinely God-like way to spend Christmas.   It’s what God did.

4 responses to “Question of the Day: What About Church Mission During the Holidays?

  1. Pingback: Expecting the Word – Advent Three – Monday « No Longer "Not Your Grandfather's CPA"

  2. This puts a whole new spin on the “learning game” for a 3 year old girl that I just wrapped and left under the angel tree. I wonder how to do it better.

    I also struggle with the idea that my (highly affluent/over educated) church likes to throw money at things. Coffee hours kind of a pain? What if the vestry gave money to a fund to cover that (not sure how the money vestry gives gets the setting up/cleaning up done!). No one wants to play as a guest musician (we have highly skilled concert quality musicians)… Let’s hire some people.

    Gift cards are another way of throwing money and not engaging. How to find that middle ground?

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  3. Hi Amanda – I agree that throwing money at a problem is not only easy; it’s impersonal. Gift cards are also impersonal gifts, but my point was that they allow parents and families to give personal gifts to each other. We might not be engaged with those who receive them when we give gift cards, but the gift cards give some semblance of power (the ability to purchase what they really want/need.)

    I believe – in terms of caring for our neighbors who are struggling financially – is to get to know them personally. Not easy when we live in affluent neighborhoods. But even in our affluent neighborhoods, there are people in need. They might be invisible to us. I think it’s all about the relationship.

    PS The 3 yr. old will surely love the gift.

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  4. I once knew of a church whose deacon’s board stopped participating in a local Christmas For Needy Families effort because they were so incensed a few years ago that a Needy Child asked for a video game instead of more practical gifts like socks or books. When the pastor quietly pointed out that most of the children (if not all) in the church were probably going to to ask for (and likely get) the very same game for Christmas that year…it turned out to be a very long meeting.

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