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HOT POTATO: Giving Well at Christmas: Respecting the Poor, Changing the World

Friday, 4 November 2011  | Deborah Storie

It is difficult for a person associated with a development organization to influence the avenues their faith community chooses to express their concern for the poor.

At the same time, it would be irresponsible to do nothing and say nothing while your church embraces giving options that are easy for us to relate to, appeal to our sense of creativity, give us a feeling of personal connection and are ‘good fun’, but are not really helpful for the poor.

I lived with this dilemma for several years before resolving to do whatever I could to encourage churches to think through the consequences of various types of intervention, and so channel our good intentions and gifts in ways most likely to do good, and least likely to have unintended negative consequences.

The growing popularity of sending gift boxes overseas, orphanages in far-away places, and some short-term 'mission' trips, are all symptoms of a broader shift in Australian thought over the last few years. They reflect a hierarchical worldview in which some give generously and others gratefully receive. According to this worldview, rich Christians are responsible to give generously to the poor and not much more. This worldview is based on a narrow understanding of poverty which equates it with material deprivation and fails to acknowledge the complex networks of forces that give more to those who already have too much, and take from those who already have  too little . In this worldview, deeper structural causes of poverty and inequality don’t exist.

As followers of Jesus we are called to imagine and live toward a future in which everyone has enough and no-one has too much, a future in which no-one makes anyone else afraid. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech captures this vision of equity beautifully. As followers of Jesus, it is our responsibility to nourish Spirit-inspired visions of the future of God and intentionally resist cultural, political and economic forces which push us in anti-kingdom directions.

Well intentioned compassionate people often struggle to understand what it feels like to be poor, to always be expected to receive, to be a parent who loves and wants to provide for their children but is implicitly told that they are not up to the job, to have your human dignity and agency denied. My hope is that we non-poor Christians might learn to imagine what it is like to be on the receiving end of charity; to think through the consequences of our actions; and to identify the implicit messages ‘charity’ sends to both the givers and the receivers of ‘gifts.’ I long for us to give respectfully and intelligently in ways which address underlying problems and empower the poor. Sadly, our love of mercy often blinds us to the need to do justice and walk humbly with our God.

Repentance is part of this process. If we lived as God intended us to, there would be no poor among us (Deuteronomy 15). The world not being as God intended, we are called to alleviate the symptoms of injustice while committing ourselves afresh to establish God’s justice on earth—until the Kingdom comes. Through grace, repentance frees us to love our global neighbours without thinking about what we will ‘get out of it.’ Through grace, forgiveness liberates us from enslavement to false gods including our need to be needed (to be ‘personally involved’, to feel ‘personally connected,’ to feel ‘as if we are making a difference’), and our lust for more than our share of new experiences. Through grace, repentance frees us to give without letting our left hand know what our right hand is doing.

We give in gratitude for and in response to the boundless grace and love of God, for us as for all people. We give because Jesus calls us to live in ways that bring the world of God’s promise just a little closer, a world in which all have life—and abundantly. We give in obedience, joy and hope because God is with us. Emmanuel!


Giving Well – Five Practical Suggestions
1. Support long term integrated  projects which increase the capacity of poor communities to manage their own lives.
Both financial & prayer support are essential. Educate yourself to give, pray & live more intelligently:

  • TEAR Target Magazine
  • New Internationalist
  • World Vision Annual Program Reviews
  • Anglicord News

2. Choose Christmas & birthday gifts for friends & family with the world in mind:

  • Oxfam – Gifts that Give Twice http://www.oxfamshop.org.au/
  • New Internationalist www.newint.com.au/shop/ or Amnesty International Catalogues (http://shop.amnesty.org.au)  

3. Are friends & family are suffocating under too much ‘stuff’? Don’t make things worse!

  • Use TEAR’s Really Useful Gift Catalogue http://www.usefulgifts.org/
  • Donate to World Vision, TEAR, or Anglicord.


4. Choose & buy gifts for less privileged children in Australia

In this country, giving gifts at Christmas & birthdays & certain other ethnic festivals is culturally appropriate. Children feel left out if their parents are unable to buy them presents. Agencies which have established Toy Banks from which struggling parents can select gifts to wrap & give to their children themselves include:

Give quality new toys in original packaging. To increase the likelihood that needy parents will be able to choose ‘the right gift’ for their child, agencies suggest that parents donate duplicates of the toys they give to their own children, & that children donate toys they would like to receive themselves. Remember, used toys are not suitable for Toy Banks.

5. Listen to and learn from forgotten Australians
Ask around, & you may discover friends who were recipients of charity as children, or in adulthood. If you know them well enough, ask them to share their experiences with you, to help you understand. If not, listen out for stories told by Anglicare, the Salvos & the Brotherhood of St Lawrence. Read The Big Issue or immerse yourself in the stories & pictures of people of Sambor, Southern Laos (www.oxfam.org.au/resources/filestore/originals/oaus-preservingplenty-0210.pdf)


Deborah Storie is chair of the Board of TEAR Australia and is completing a Ph.D in New Testament studies


Meaning well but giving dadly? Questions to ask & things to imagine

1. What do our gifts communicate? What don’t we see when we focus on our gift?

2. What about the big picture?

Many of the biggest challenges poor communities face around the world are related to reduced access to land, water & other natural resources; changing weather patterns; unemployment & unsafe employment; & difficulty selling local produce & products (due to competition from cheap or free imports).

What does this mean for giving well?

  • Gifts that use local resources, skills & technologies avoid creating dependency, assist local economies & communicate respect.
  • Gifts that create safe employment opportunities are especially valuable.
  • Celebrate Christmas in fair-trade, slave-free, climate-friendly ways!

3. Why export the commercialisation and materialism of Christmas in the West?
Let’s learn from the way many third world Christians celebrate nativity without the ‘stuff’!

4. Long term benefits?
Long term projects work with communities & families to enable them to better care for & educate their children. A child’s primary school education costs around $50 in India, Bangladesh, Uganda, or Kenya.

5. Creating discontent? Displacing parents, grandparents or extended family?
Imagine: What happens when a Christmas gift toothbrush wears out & the toothpaste is gone a child reverts to using a tooth cleaning stick & salt & water (which cleans teeth perfectly well) . . .

Imagine: A child once proud of a simple exercise book, pencil & eraser is disenchanted now she’s seen coloured pencils, markers or better quality paper . . . And feels poor for the first time. 

Imagine: Traditional dolls made with sticks & scraps of cloth, hand-carved toys, kites made from plastic bags, balls made from raw wool, group games, songs & dances. 

Imagine: Mother does extra sewing at night to buy an exercise book & pencil so her daughter won’t go empty-handed to school. Father secretly carves toys late at night or during siesta to surprise his children at Christmas.

6. What would you want for your kids?
Imagine: If you were struggling to support your children, what type of help would you appreciate most?

If you were to die, how would you like your children to be cared for? By whom?

Struggling to imagine what is possible for third world children? Check out Project Halo in Cambodia www.servantsasia.org/index.php/en/cambodia/project-halo.html & Scripture Union Zimbabwe’s Chiezda Street Children’s Program (www.tear.org.au/target/articles/same-same-but-different/2008-3)

What children need depends on their culture & on the situation they & their parents are living in. Anglicare reminds us that the best gift we can give a child is safety, health and education for their mothers (http://www.anglicord.org.au/act/Current-appeal)

7. Worried about whether your donations are used effectively?
Give through agencies accredited by AusAID that are members of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) (www.acfid_asn.au).  These agencies are regularly audited & continually learn from experience in order to alleviate poverty & build justice as effectively as possible.

Remember, reasonable administration costs are not a waste of money. Good administration, planning, audits & evaluations ensure that donations are used wisely & well.

Think twice about giving ‘goods in kind’ internationally. Money is nearly always more useful.




Les Scarborough
November 5, 2011, 1:30PM

Thank you for a thoughtful and provocative article. It has challenged me as we continue to re-evaluate our giving to the underclass and indigenous peoples. The suggestions are educational and cause me to reflect on the best way to assist the poor long term with preventative strategies. Your integrated and wholistic thesis cannot but raise questions for thoughtful Christians.

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