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.