by Judy Wu Dominick
Halloween is behind us, and Thanksgiving is next week. We are soon entering the frenzied season of travel, holiday traditions, Christmas shopping, and Christmas charity projects. This quiet period before the storm is a great time to evaluate our year-end charity options and perhaps reflect on why we place a heavy emphasis on charity around Christmastime.
Year-end charity has always felt to me a bit like penance for the unrestrained consumerism we indulge in around the holidays. We even help our children do penance, assisted by parenting websites that remind us of the “Top 5” Christmas charity projects that parents can do with their kids, primarily to offset the unavoidable self-interest that accompanies the tradition of showering them with multiple gifts at this time every year.
In recent years, however, charity – particularly as an expression of Christian generosity – has come under fire as people have learned about the ways it can undermine fragile economies, discourage free enterprise, objectify the poor, create unhealthy dependency, and rob people of dignity. This knowledge certainly dampens the satisfaction we might once have derived from our favorite form of holiday penance.
While I’m in agreement that unthoughtful, giver-centric charity can do harm, I believe there is still a place of honor for charity. When it’s done well, it has the potential to help needy communities flourish and to become for donors a doorway to transformative repentance, which is much more significant than an outward act of penance.
After all, charity itself – when understood as generosity and helpfulness toward the needy or suffering – is a biblical mandate. The key is understanding that the desire to be generous and helpful functions best as harnessed energy rather than as a self-conscious driving force. Love, which always places the interests of others first, is the force that should harness it.
FCS Ministries’ Pride for Parents is one of my favorite examples of charity operating under the harness of love. Around Christmastime, when the atmosphere becomes flooded with marketing campaigns that stir up intense longing in our collective psyche for material goods, families already experiencing crushing poverty feel an additional burden of hopeless frustration. While I would love to hit a magical RESET button that makes Christmas less consumeristic in our culture, the reality is there isn’t one. So as people of God, we have to think about how to create and participate in redemptive practices within such a fallen system. Pride for Parents provides a way to do those things.
During the two weeks leading up to Christmas, the Pride for Parents program operates a toy store in South Atlanta that is stocked by the generous donations of schools, churches, businesses, and individuals. Once the store is set up, families from the community can shop and buy the toys their kids want at greatly reduced prices. If they don’t have the money to pay for them, they are given the opportunity to earn it by working at the store. Volunteers and donors also sign up for work shifts. In this model, the generosity of givers is harnessed in such a way that beneficiaries of charity are the protagonists, and givers and beneficiaries have the opportunity to experience community as they serve side-by-side as equals.
It’s important to highlight that Pride for Parents is more of an extension of FCS Ministries’ long-term, year-round commitment to the well-being and development of South Atlanta than it is a Christmas charity project. The program came into existence because authentic connections with people in the community revealed residents were being hurt by one-way, non-empowering charity projects. They needed presence more than presents.
As it turns out, when people with financial resources become fully present to the people they wish to serve, things begin to shift internally for them as well. I had always given generously to charitable causes, but doing so made little to no difference in the way I spent money on myself. It wasn’t until I became deeply invested in relationships with poor people that I began to experience conviction about my excesses. The needs and circumstances of friends who struggled with food and housing insecurity began to compete with the lure of materialism, and I felt the latter lose a good bit of its power. I saw I could choose a more modest lifestyle and say “no” to things I didn’t need in order to do more impactful things for my friends.
Maybe this year, engaging in charity differently will serve as an entry point into a lifestyle of loving and serving poor communities better, of living more like Jesus. Maybe this year, instead of doing penance, more of us will choose repentance.
Judy Wu Dominick is an Atlanta-based writer and speaker focused on helping Christians engage more thoughtfully, lovingly, and effectively across racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and religious lines as a means of fulfilling the public dimensions of their faith. She blogs at lifereconsidered.com, and you can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.