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Christmas is the time of the year when people feel especially generous and want to help others in need.  People often think of children and want to ensure that children receive gifts during this time of the year.

That desire to bring Christmas joy to children may lead some congregations into participating in non-ELCA organization programs that involve putting small gifts and trinkets wrapped in boxes for children in other countries.

While filling these boxes can be fun and is an easy program to participate in, congregations would do well to spend a little more time investigating the organizations who sponsor these programs.  Some of the issues involved in participating in these programs are problematic.

You may be supporting an organization that delivers a message about God and Christianity contrary to what we preach every Sunday.

Yes, we all worship the same God but we don’t all say the same thing about God.  If we support organizations that contradict what we say about the Gospel, this can be confusing and even damaging to people’s faith.

The cheap toys that people are encouraged to buy and put in the box may be made by exploited or even slave labor.  Some are even made by children.   Remember that we want to help children and make their lives better. Exploiting children or families is the opposite of what people want to do when they are looking for Christmas giving projects.  Even if the toys are ethically produced, many of them are not culturally appropriate.  Often children aren’t even sure what they are supposed to do with the toys.

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Some of these organizations will add pamphlets with religious messages contrary to how we understand the Gospel. Many of them also have images with racist, sexist and culturally insensitive stereotypes.

For all the time and money spent on these projects, the impact these boxes have on improving the lives of children is at best, negligible and at worst, is actually harmful.

So why do congregations continue to participate in these projects despite the problematic nature of the sponsoring organizations when we have ELCA organizations like Lutheran World Relief and ELCA Hunger Appeal with a proven track record of improving the lives of children and families?

There are a number of reasons.

It’s convenient.  These organizations provide the structure, literature, and publicity so that it is very easy to participate.  This is appealing to busy church leaders during the holidays.

Everyone is doing it.  It’s fun to be part of a movement.  When you hear that so many other churches are doing it, you assume it must be a good thing.

It’s more fun to pack a box with toys than write a check.  This is probably the biggest draw of these programs.   People want to feel connected with the people they help.

While organizations like Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Relief, and ELCA World Hunger Appeal will always need individuals and congregations to write checks so they can have the largest impact on people’s lives, there are lots of other ways to help people abroad and in your own community that have a more “hands on” appeal.

Here are some suggestions:

To help in your own community:

Contact Lutheran Services in Iowa and ask what is needed for the children at Bremwood Residential Treatment Center

  • Contact your local schools or social service agency for families to buy gifts for.  You can put up an “angel” tree with ornaments listing their needs/wishes and have members take an ornament to purchase that gift.  Or you can even take your youth group shopping for these gifts.  (One group went midnight shopping at an all-night Walmart during a youth lock-in.  They also wrapped the gifts during the lock-in.)
  • Put up a mitten and sock tree and collect them for local homeless or battered women shelters.
  • Collect new and very gently used items and invite people to come and “shop” for what they need themselves.  Allow parents to be the ones to wrap and give their children the gifts they have wished for.
  • Backpacks with toothbrush and toothpaste, stuffed toy, and a book or two for children removed from their homes and put into foster care. These children often arrive in foster homes with whatever few (if any) possessions stuffed into a plastic bag.  You can find out from your local social service agencies what specifically would be helpful.

As you can see, there are many opportunities to give both globally and locally which give people an opportunity to be more hands on.

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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.

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