Being the season of giving, it is common to see advertisements and promotions for Christmas gift programs for the financial insecure. Groups such as Toys for Tots or Angel Tree cover the airwaves solicited toys to give to children whose parents are unable to purchase Christmas gifts. Churches across the country partner with these groups, or create their own program – all designed to bless families during this time of celebration.
Our church was no different. That is, until we feel into a game changing worldview shift on these traditional Christmas gift programs.
It all started last year at our food pantry and clothing closet. The food pantry director was tired of during with the paper work and regulations surrounding the Toys for Tots program as the benefit didn’t seem to match the work it took to pull of the program. Yet, she still wanted to do something for the families in the area…. so she started talking to some of the other pantry volunteers and they came up with an unique solution that “fit” our community and culture.
Before I tell you what they did, allow me to set the stage a bit more. Our church is located in a small rural village of 200 to 300 people tucked into the Idaho mountains with a strong sense of community. In 2008 a few community gals (some connected to our church, some not) got together and started a clothing exchange in the back room of our local restaurant, The Triangle (a great place to eat by the way!!), where folks could get some ‘new-to-them’ clothes for free (or in exchange for their old stuff, either way). This “clothing closet”, as it is known, was absorbed into the food pantry started by our church in the fall of 2009. Since then, we have given literally tons of clothes, shoes, boots, coats, and various household goods to people who needed them. (One of my favorite stories is of a young girl of ten who started bouncing with joy at getting her second pair of blue jeans. Just a small act, but one that carries a powerful message.)
The culture that developed out of this clothing closet was one of ‘shopping’ – as in, folks were used to coming to the food pantry and browsing through the racks of clothes, looking for that perfect shirt or pair of pants. Knowing this, the volunteers thinking about the Christmas gift program came up with the idea of having a “Christmas Store” in which parents could ‘shop’ for gifts. Running with the concept, they set out long tables in the back dining room of the Triangle loaded with toys (new or gently used) according to various age ranges. Parents were then able to browse through the “store”, picking out presents for each of their kids before having the gifts wrapped and tagged. They also had bowls of punch, trays of cookies and some cakes there for the folks to munch on as they browsed. All in all, I believe about 50 kids received presents that year through the “store” (this year we are on track to provide gifts for 80 or so kids).
Yet the biggest impact of the “Christmas Store” was not the number of kids who received presents – nor the number of volunteers who gave their time, energy and/or funds to make it happen. The biggest impact – the game changer, so to speak – happened among the parents. Instead of receiving a box of toys chosen by a stranger, the parents were empowered to choose a toy themselves for their children. Little Johnny likes XYZ while Annie likes ABC; each parent, or grandparent as the case may be, had the opportunity to choose a gift for their love one.
It seems like a such a small shift; a simple change in who picks out the toy for the child. Some may even say that it should not matter who picks out the toy as long as the child receives something under the Christmas tree. That may be so if the only goal is to give away toys or to make sure everyone has a chance to partake in the unfettered commercialization of our society. However, if the goal is one of loving people – of being Jesus to those we meet – then I would say that this simple change is one that rocks the foundation of all that we hold dear.
Jayakumar Christian, Associate Director of World Vision India, once commented in his book “God Of The Empty-Handed: Poverty, Power and The Kingdom of God” that the true mark of poverty is not the lack of material things or one’s annual income. The true mark of poverty is the sense of powerlessness that comes when you are unable to make decisions that affect your life. For example, do you have the power to choose where you live, what joy you have or what you are going to wear that day? Or are these choices made for you due to factors outside your control? The economy in your area could be that there are only X amount of jobs, so you have to do what you do even if you don’t want to do it. Perhaps you are unable to move because of the cost of moving or perhaps you only own two outfits so you no longer have the power to dress the way you would like to dress. Or, even more basic, perhaps the choice of what food you eat is made for you due to price of groceries rather than what you would prefer to buy (i.e. if you have a limited amount of funds for food, the healthier, more expensive brands are off limits, leaving the cheaper, less healthier items has your only ‘choice’).
By shifting control of who picks out the gift to the parent, we are in effect telling them that they are valuable. No longer do they have to be embarrassed when their child opens a gift to find an item they hate – having to walk the line of trying to comfort the child with statements of “Yes, I really do know your likes and dislikes” (which, let’s face it, is a HUGE thing no matter what your age), with ones of, “I’m sorry, we are just too poor for mommy and daddy to buy anything.” Instead, the parent can confidently declare with all their heart, “I picked that out especially for you!!”
The power to choose.
An often overlooked concept that carries with it a host of emotions, self-worth and value statements.
Perhaps next year, you all who are reading this will consider shifting your perspective on the traditional Christmas giving programs. Perhaps instead of choosing a gift for someone else’s child, you will empower that parent to choose a gift for their child. Perhaps it is time to give the gift of the freedom to choose.