Giving Thoughtfully: Not All Charity is Charity

Giving Thoughtfully: Not All Charity is Charity December 5, 2019
Credit: Pixabay

Charity is good, but we need to be careful about it.

Most of us feel extra charitable around Christmas. As we buy and wrap gifts for our loved ones, we think about all the people who are struggling, and we might look for ways to help them.

It’s easy for us to assume we know what someone else needs, but when you have plenty and have always had plenty, it’s hard to understand what it’s like to live differently. Giving charitably can be wonderful and provide real help, or it can create an additional burden on someone already burdened by poverty.

A friend of mine recently shared an experience she had as a young woman. I asked permission to share her post since it provides some insight most well-meaning people wouldn’t have.

Years and years ago I was part of a youth group that wanted to do a shoe box gift for a kid one Christmas.

The youth minister had $10. He said, “We can buy one $10 gift or 9 $1 gifts. (adding tax and all) The entire youth group were rallying around the idea of more is better. In other words, they would go to the Dollar Tree and find 9 toys for this one shoe box.

None of them understood what it was like to be poor. They all lived in solid middle class or lower upper class homes. I had understood what it was like to be solidly poor. I had lived it just a few Christmas’ before. I cut into the discussion. “I know what’s it’s like to be on the other side of this box. I’ve lived that life. As someone poor, I could still get a toy from the dollar store. We should get one nice item, something they normally wouldn’t get because the money would have to go to food instead of toys.”

The youth minister stared at me for a moment, and said, “What about nine Dollar Tree items? Would you have been able to do that?”

Yep, I was outvoted.

When you go to purchase items for lower income kids this season, remember, sometimes it’s more than the thought that counts. I still wonder what that kid thought opening that shoe box on Christmas morning. I know I would have been gracious. I wouldn’t know if other kids would be the same.

I also noticed a sign written on the drop off location the following Christmas: “No dollar store boxes.”

–Melissa Fain

 

Melissa had some necessary perspective on giving, but she was ignored. While reading her post, all I could think of was the child who received a box of cheap items on Christmas and was expected to be grateful for it. How demeaning.

I wouldn’t give my own child a box of nine cheap toys. Why would I give that to some other child? Aren’t other children equally as important as my own?

I know what it’s like to be living on the edge and receive “help” that isn’t actually helpful. You have to pretend it’s great because if you don’t, then you’re ungrateful. Poor people are expected to sit under the table like dogs and be thankful for any scraps dropped down to us. It’s dehumanizing.

There were Christmases when what I really wanted was a giant package of toilet paper because the SNAP benefits I had at the time didn’t cover toilet paper. I’m lucky, though. Though I’ve done absolutely nothing to earn it, I happen to have people in my life who are in a position to help if I need someone to step in with armfuls of toilet paper. A lot of people don’t have that.

Still, even when you have the option, asking for help is humbling, if not humiliating, in a society that shames people for living in poverty. Poor people are made in the image of God too, and so many of us have done all the “right” things, and still wound up here. Even the people who’ve made mistakes don’t deserve to be treated like props we drag out every December and toss a few cheap things at to make ourselves feel less guilty about having more than we need. We all make mistakes. Some of us just don’t have a safety net under us when we fall. That’s the only difference between us all.

If you know someone needs help, don’t make them come to you and ask for it. Just do whatever is in your power to do for them, and don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t expect a parade of gratitude just because you’re giving them something extra you had and didn’t absolutely need.

When we give, are we giving the bare minimum because we have the attitude that those poor people should appreciate any old thing we feel like tossing their way? Are we giving what we ourselves would like to receive in those same circumstances? Are we giving thoughtfully and considering what the other person needs or wants to receive? Are we giving without putting any additional emotional burden on someone who is already struggling?

If you received nine cheap items, obviously chosen at random from a dollar store, that you’d just wind up donating because you don’t want or need them, how would you feel? Would you feel differently if you received one, thoughtfully chosen gift? Which gift would best honor your dignity as a person?

 

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  • thank you for this. I totally expected this to turn into a screed on “Don’t give if it won’t change their lives” that I keep hearing from my family for giving what we can to the homeless. No, a peanut butter sandwich is not a permanent solution, but if it all you will have for dinner, it’s a solution to keep you alive until the next solution.

    Instead, it reminded me more of this article (warning, language, because angry poor people are expected to use such language)
    from the old Cracked Magazine:

    https://www.cracked.com/article_22718_5-soul-crushing-realities-being-poor.html

    Or this much newer, less language ridden article from the opposite point of view:

    https://www.cracked.com/blog/5-ways-middle-class-taught-to-despise-poor/

  • A church we attended for a while helped a primarily immigrant church here in Phoenix by stocking their food pantry once a month. I was forever changed when my friend brought boxes of Oreos for the children and name brand cereal and all her canned goods were name brand instead of the typical cheapest generic brands. She said, “what child doesn’t love Oreos” and I was humbled by her perspective and willingness to share what she would buy for her own family.

  • I love this. It really comes back to the Golden Rule.

  • billykangas

    We’re in the midst of a gift drive here at Hope Clinic and I tell people to donate something that sparks delight in themselves.
    I take the same approach to our food pantry trips. I’ve got an article talking about this approach coming up on Saturday…. keep your eyes peeled.