Helping That Doesn't Hurt?

Sue Edwards's picture

Our congregation fills hundreds of bags this time of year with groceries to give families so they can enjoy a nice Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a coupon for a turkey. But do these Thanksgiving dinners ultimately help or hurt?This question haunts me during the holidays.

       How is caring for the legitimately poor best accomplished? I'm talking about the helpless, not the clueless, as one TV personality likes to say. My Bible tells me that it's the responsibility the church. But how can the church best accomplish this mandate?

     On my drive to work, I usually pass a man begging on the corner? Do I give him money? a handout? If I do, am I likely feeding his addiction? Should I care how he uses my gift? I hate to pass by anyone who might be hungry. In the past I've stocked my car with a sack of non-perishables to hand him through the window. But since watching a documentary that insisted I was creating an entitlement attitude and doing more harm than good, I've stopped. Now I pass him and feel guilty all the way to work. It's good to feed the hungry, but I'm not always sure the best way to do that.

      But here is an answer that I think is worth considering. Years ago we used to donate Christmas toys for children to a local charity. Then we began volunteering at a ministry in South Dallas devoted to helping the disadvantaged. They helped using a different strategy. They created a Christmas Store, and soon our church copied their enterprise.

     Here is how it worked. During the year, families, single parents, elders on fixed incomes, anyone who lived under the poverty line, could earn the right to shop in the Christmas Store by attending parenting seminars, volunteering, and other worthy activities. And during the year, a team of volunteers collected new items To sell. Some were donated. Some were purchased from retailers at a fraction of the original price.

     Then, usually the first weekend of December, The Christmas Store was open for business. We transformed the church fellowship hall into a lovely store, complete with carols, hot cider, and free gift-wrapping. Qualified people could purchase items of their choice for a quarter of the original price. Single moms and dads could chose the gifts that their own children requested instead of giving them whatever a stranger happened to purchase, thus eliminating the generational entitlement mentality that can so easily be passed down. No child would ever think, Mom can't afford what I really wanted for Christmas so people I've never seen picked this out for me.

       Each year lines formed several hours before the store opened and the customers left holding their heads high, thanking the workers profusely. And it was enjoyable visiting with the customers. We included a tract and a brochure with the Christmas story or a CD of Christmas music in every shopper's bag.

       Was creating a  Christmas Store more work than buying and wrapping a handout? You bet. But was it a better investment in the lives and dignity of people who were struggling financially? I think so.  

       Helping others is a noble goal. Christ commanded it. But we need to be sure that unintended consequences don't harm more than help. Giving Thanksgiving dinners has its place, but maybe next year we should think along the lines of a Christmas Store?

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