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The Gospel, Goats and Generosity: The Story of TEAR’s Useful Gift Catalogue

Monday, 5 November 2012  | Sally Cloke and Brian Holmes

TEAR Australia is an organisation committed to fighting global inequality by helping local Christians understand the issues and take action. Not just by giving financially, but by choosing to live by the biblical values of generosity and justice, rather than the greed and exploitation at the heart of so much of modern western society.

TEAR’s former National Director and originator of the gift catalogue concept, Steve Bradbury, felt that one of the aspects of contemporary life that most needed critiquing was Christmas: “It seemed to me that in our largely post-Christian society Christmas celebrations had deteriorated into over-the-top, materialistic pig-outs, and that this was something we in the church ought to creatively resist,” Steve said.

The challenge was to come up with a way to celebrate Jesus’ birthday that would be truly joyful while also being true to Jesus and his message. But what do you get the Saviour who has everything? TEAR found the answer in Matthew 25, with the story of the sheep and the goats.

“Jesus told his very first followers that if they gave food to a hungry person or water to a thirsty person, it was as though they gave it to him,” Steve said. “He made it clear that he delighted in such gifts.”

So alongside clean water and healthy food were added toilets, goats and a host of other life-giving items, and a prototype “Gift Catalogue” took shape.

Today, “Useful Gifts” has grown to become TEAR’s largest fundraising – and awareness raising – activity. The Catalogue features a wide range of gifts, from $5 (school supplies) to $10,000 (a community development project in Afghanistan). As well as helping fund the work of the local development organisations that TEAR partners with in developing countries, the catalogue now gives supporters the option of giving to TEAR’s expanding work with Indigenous Australian communities. The gift cards have come a long way too: donors now have the choice of a printed gift card or an online e-card. TEAR runs a registry service for supporters who want to encourage friends and family to buy them Useful Gifts as wedding presents. And there’s also the “Gift a Month” program designed to encourage occasional gift purchasers to become monthly donors.

Each year, TEAR’s creative team strive to put a fresh angle on the Gift Catalogue, from mixing new gifts in with old favourites to creating a fresh look for the gift cards. It’s not just about staying ahead of the many other organisations who have followed TEAR’s lead and produced catalogues of their own: it’s also important to give regular supporters a reason to keep coming back. Matthew Maury, TEAR’s National Director emphasises that there are some things that will never change: “TEAR firmly sees the Gift Catalogue as an educational tool as much as a fund-raising one. So alongside the “warm and fuzzy” items (literally, in the case of ever-popular goats), TEAR regularly includes less popular, but essential items like community health worker programs. And one of the most basic lessons the catalogue is designed to teach is that what seems a little, in Australian eyes, can mean huge changes in the life of a child or community.”  Matthew notes, “the five dollars we spend on the coffee and muffin is enough to give a child the chance to attend school or help set up a community chicken-raising business.”  

TEAR strives to be transparent about how each gift helps alleviate poverty and where donations are spent (90% percent of all funds go towards projects and education). Some people may be disappointed that their goat is not being mailed special delivery to Afghanistan, but TEAR does not send animals or materials overseas. Items are usually far cheaper when sourced locally, especially when transport cost is considered. Buying goods in-country supports national producers and helps ensure that all items are culturally appropriate.  

In the 40 years that TEAR has been supporting aid and development work, the agency has maintained a distinctive ethos. TEAR was born out of the Evangelical Alliance and thus founded on Christian principles and seeks to live them out daily in its work. TEAR forms partnership with local organisations who share a biblically-shaped commitment to seeing the whole person flourish, physically and spiritually.  

Alongside supporting development programs that work with some of the world’s poorest communities, TEAR is strongly committed to working with Christians in Australia to help them recognise the biblical basis for social and economic justice and to help them live in the light of this understanding. TEAR’s education staff visit churches and schools, speak at camps and conferences, and run awareness and advocacy events designed to help Christians be good news for the poor.  

The Useful Gifts catalogue continues to be a good first step for a church community that wants to deepen their understanding of justice and poverty issues.  Volunteers receive everything they need to set up a stall and sell Useful Gifts in their church or neighbourhood, including posters, a DVD and a supply of gift cards. It can be a great discussion starter for issues of faith, consumerism, generosity and global poverty.  

Matthew said that he continues to regularly hear from church leaders and Christian educators about the positive impact that involvement with TEAR’s Useful Gifts program has made in broadening people’s understanding about global poverty, our role in it, and how it impacts our faith.  “Our prayer is that it can be tool to help us grow in our overall discipleship and commitment to live justly” 

To find out more visit: www.usefulgifts.org or call 1800 244 986

Sally Cloke is a Master of Theology student and freelance writer who previously worked as TEAR's communications officer.


BOX: One goat goes a long way

In rural Tanzania, most people are subsistence farmers who face a daily struggle to produce enough food for the family table. Life is challenging enough, but for widows and those with HIV/AIDS, it’s even harder.

Although she doesn’t have HIV/AIDS, life is also hard for Wakuru Bita whose husband died two years ago. She now lives with her three children, aged from 20 to 2, and two grand-children, on a tiny plot of land. Through a livelihood project run by TEAR’s partner BRAC, Wakuru was able to access agricultural training and a goat for breeding.

Through the project training, Wakuru has learnt how to care for and rear goats, build a goat shed and grow trees for their fodder. She also cultivates cassava, sweet potatoes and sorghum in her garden and is using knowledge from the program to implement a solar-drying method to preserve vegetables that she grows.

Wakuru first goat turned into several more. She has sold one goat, and sell goat’s milk, which has helped pay for school fees, uniforms and household items. The manure helps her vegetable garden grow, and the milk helps keep her family healthy. As part of the program, she has passed on some female goats to members of her Dairy Group who have gone on to breed their own.

IMAGE from here: http://www.tear.org.au/learn/tear-news/real-change-one-goat-at-a-time


BOX: School gives Plenty of support

Home-made lemonade, shoe-shining, pom-pom animals and Christmas decorations were just some of the things for sale at the Plenty Valley Christian School’s market day, which raised money towards items in TEAR’s Gift Catalogue.

Using a small start-up “loan”, Grade Four students at the Melbourne school bought resources, advertised and sold their products within the school community at the market day. With the money raised, they paid back their loan and spent the remaining profit - around $500 - buying small business loans, kitchen gardens and chickens from the Catalogue.

“One of our concepts was responsibility, so we viewed this from a Christian perspective,” said teacher Jacqui Ellison said. “We inquired into what the Bible had to say about wealth and our responsibility when using money. One of the important parts of our primary years’ program is action. This is our action.”


Useful Gifts: A Personal Reflection

Brian Holmes, Constituency Development Coordinator, TEAR Australia

About 15 years ago, my wife and I were in our local, Christian cooperative wholesaler in Cambridge, England. As we were queuing at the check-out, weighing up the relative merits of a carob bar versus a sesame-seed snack, we spotted some of the very first Useful Gifts from TEAR Australia. They were DL-sized, printed in black and white, and, to be honest, a bit dull. Even so, having caught our eye, we delved into the pile and found that we could buy various gifts, and the way that they worked instantly jumped out at us. We bought a teacher for my sister-in-law, who is a teacher, and a toilet for my brother, who is, well, my brother. Our excitement about these new and innovative gifts was pretty short-lived by Christmas as said relatives were non-plussed.

We never saw TEAR Australia cards again in England, although many other charities had created their own versions by then. As such we were able to continue to buy charity cards, and one year bought some for a friend and his family of youngsters. During the pre-Christmas negotiations about what the gift/cost parameters should be for the family exchanges, we mentioned that we were going the gift card route. Again the response was a polite, but unenthusiastic, ‘Okaaay!?!?’. They wanted stuff; their kids wanted stuff; they didn’t get stuff! After Christmas our friend did admit that when faced with the puzzlement about this gift, they thought that they’d make the best of a bad situation and logged onto the charity website to find out more about the gift and the work that it funded. He conceded that this family interaction was probably the highlight of the Christmas Day for them all. 

Over the years we have continued to explore this way of gift-giving, and as our families have finally become used to the idea, we even agreed that as family groups we should not buy gifts for each other, but all chip in some money to buy a larger gift, such as a cow or school. So why the reason for this change?

I think that the beauty of the Useful Gifts approach is that it helps us to challenge our notion of giving gifts, especially around the high-pressure, consumerist push at Christmas. If you are in a situation, which, I believe many of us are, where you just don’t need more stuff, then this provides an ideal avenue to explore giving in a different way. It also has additional benefits in terms of being more environmentally friendly and helping to set budgets. Personally, I also find it helps to reduce the stress and chaos of Christmas shopping, and finding that ‘perfect’ gift. In addition, from a biblical perspective it’s a positive and practical way in which we can demonstrate God’s heart for the poor. 

Now that I am working for TEAR, what does it mean for me now? I still feel the same way about the idea as I did 15 years ago, but now I understand the real impact on people’s lives overseas. TEAR’s approach to funding our overseas projects is based on a commitment to those project partners. Generally, it’s a minimum of three years, and we have to trust God that we will continue to raise enough money to honour our future commitments. That’s why the Useful Gifts cards are so important. They provide TEAR with the money to make those long-term commitments, and that in turn, truly does change lives.

Not only that, the Useful Gifts cards have changed my life too, and also the lives of family and friends. Over the years, we have become a little more informed about issues of poverty; we have become a little more generous; we’ve become a little less wasteful.  

As to what I’ll be choosing this year? Well, it’s got to be our new Dhumba cards which support TEAR’s project in Australia with the indigenous community. The specially-commissioned artwork is just too beautiful for words. If you’ve never tried this approach to Christmas gifts before, why not give it a try? Perhaps your family and friends will be changed too.

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