One of the special joys of serving in the city begins around Thanksgiving time and continues on through Christmas. During this special season of celebration, the hearts of caring people turn toward those who are less fortunate. Families blessed with abundance become especially mindful of those who have little. I have the enviable position of bringing urban and suburban families together so that joyful sharing can fill the holiday season with special meaning. I have done this in various ways for years, even before we moved into the inner-city. I gathered lists of needy families with the names, ages, sizes and special needs of their children and matched them with families who would deliver an array of delicious food and wonderful presents. It was a holiday tradition that gave me great satisfaction. But all that changed the Christmas of 1981.
We had moved as a family into the inner-city earlier that year and were delighted at how quickly we had been embraced by our new neighbors. We were soon frequenting each other's homes and sharing our lives in personal ways. When the holiday season approached, we found it much easier to list special needs and wants for the "adopting" families to supply. But this year, as we sat in the homes of the poor when gift-bearing families arrived, we saw something that had entirely escaped our attention before.
The children, of course, danced with excitement at the stacks of presents arriving at their door. And the mothers were generally gracious to their well-dressed benefactors, though they seemed somewhat subdued and ill-at-ease. But the fathers, upon hearing the knock at the door, would immediately disappear from the room and not return until the gift-givers had departed. For the first time I saw another side to our giving tradition. Here were parents in their own living rooms, in front of their children, being exposed for their inability to provide for their own. Our system of kindness was destroying their pride. Moms were willing to endure the loss of self-esteem for the sake of the children. But for the dads, the humiliation was just too great to face.
A new tradition was clearly needed. The following Christmas season I asked our giving friends to consider an additional gift. "Give the gift of dignity to the dads," I requested of them. "Give the gift of pride to the parents of our community." And here's how we decided to do it. Instead of delivering gifts to homes, we encouraged donors to bring them unwrapped to our Family Store where we set up a special "Toy Shop." Each gift was ticketed with an affordable price. Parents from the community were then invited to come shopping and purchase those items that would gladden the hearts of their children. Parents who had no money were offered jobs in the store and other places in the community so that everyone could share in the dignity of earning and purchasing.
This required some sacrifice for donors since they forfeited the joy of seeing the children receive the gifts they had given. This joy, too, was offered as an anonymous gift to urban parents who on Christmas morning had the delight of seeing their children open presents given from the loving efforts of their own hands.
The Christmas of 1982 had a remarkably different spirit about it. The idea made sense to donors and a wonderful array of toys and clothes flowed into the "Toy Shop." Parents in our neighborhood were over-joyed to find such "bargains". Some parents experienced for the first time the excitement of actually going Christmas shopping for their children. That year we discovered some very important insights. We learned that poor parents would much rather spend their hard-earned money shopping for their own families than stand in a free toy line with their proof of poverty. We learned that the dimes and dollars spent by the poor can become a much needed economic catalyst to create new employment opportunities in the community throughout the year.
Clearly the most important lesson we learned, however, is that the deepest poverty of all is having nothing of value to bring to the exchange of community life. Our past one-way giving had subtly communicated, "You have nothing of worth which we desire in return." We determined then and there that all of our future giving would enhance human dignity and strengthen the hands of parents as providers.
The "Pride for Parents" tradition continues to grow in our community. This year we anticipate that more than 1000 needy families will have the joy of Christmas shopping at the Toy Shop. If you would like to join in the festivities with us, do let me know. There's plenty of time to schedule a shopping spree with your family or a toy drive at your office or church. Gifts sensitively shared will make this season one of great joy for rich and poor alike.
Partners together, Bob Lupton