Friday, October 27, 2017

why you should think twice about giving “gifts” to the poor

A gift! How thoughtful! Thank you!

I remember back in the day, driving to spend Christmas with certain relatives, my mother would always prep us with, “now remember, no matter what, you need to say ‘thank you’ and be grateful, ok?” Now that I have kids, I’ve taught them a similar script – A gift! Thank you! – and I’ve communicated my expectation that they not embarrass me by being ungrateful brats.

I’ve thought about this lesson a lot lately – how saying thank you is an act of both gratitude and basic decency. Furthermore, I’ve thought about it outside the context of my childhood Christmases in America. I’ve thought about all the gifts that we personally are asked to hand out on behalf of donors and even more about the thousands of OCC gift boxes being packed NOW that will pass through our region next spring. OCC is by far the largest “gift-giving ministry” working world-wide and as such they provide the most obvious examples. Among the many negative articles circulating about OCC lately (like this, and this, and this, and this) one push-back comment I keep seeing is, “Remember, these are gifts.”

I’ve written about OCC myself – more than once, in fact – so I obviously have thoughts. But it wasn’t until recently that I honed in on that repeated phrase – remember, these are gifts. Every time my eyes read that line, I’d think, yeah, so? until Jeremy and I were talking about it and we remembered to pass the phrase through our magic ‘America filter’ and it donned on us – Mom’s telling us to be grateful, regardless.

The third world and missionaries like myself who are attempting to serve here, have spent a good amount of time and energy trying to communicate a specific message to the generous peoples of the first world: random stuff from America is not helpful. But then mom reminds her kids again to be grateful… and what’s left to be said?

WELL, how about this:

The following is why I believe “But it’s a gift!” is neither relevant nor appropriate, and why you should think twice about giving “gifts” to the poor.

Let’s say a friend of yours has been struggling financially. She finally comes to you and says, “hey, I need to fill this prescription for my kid, but it costs $50 and I just don’t have that,” and you respond, “Aw, girl, you know I love you! Here’s a gift basket of stuff from Toys R Us worth $50!” And she just stares at you and doesn’t immediately say thank you and you get all feely and annoyed by her ingratitude… Your actions would have been unreasonable, right? No one could be that insensitive or crass as to not meet their friend’s stated, pressing need… Right???

Meet the need first is fairly intuitive in this case. But the reason why most Americans don’t respond as instinctively when it comes to giving unnecessary gifts to the poor overseas is that they are too far removed from third-world poverty to get it.

America has a lavish gift-giving culture; we give presents for everything!  New Baby! House Warming! New Job! But despite this generous tradition, many, if not most, of the people we are giving these gifts to aren’t simultaneously looking for solutions to life-threatening situations. Most Americans have never been confronted with the either/or dilemma of “meet a desperate need” or “give a random gift instead.” The struggle is quite literally foreign to them.

The driving proviso behind, “But it’s a gift!” is that Americans (as a generic unit) can afford to spend money on unnecessary things all day, every day – and we assume others do to. BUT, the developing world does not function this way. Luxury is appreciated when it comes, to be sure – but by luxury, I’m not talking fancy jewelry and the latest iphone. Luxury in our village is water that has spent time in a fridge, a car ride (instead of a bike ride) to town, and getting to eat the gizzard of a chicken. So let me say this: it is ignorant and tacky to pretend that frivolous luxury is a reasonable replacement for basic human needs that are not being met.

You can give any single unnecessary item from Target to your best friend and rightly expect a thank you from her because she probably has a roof over her head tonight. You can give a bag of party favors to your neighbor kid and even tell the goober to say thank you to you because chances are good that kid is getting fed tonight. If your friend didn’t have a house and your neighbor didn’t have food and you knew that but decided to use your expendable cash to buy trinkets instead, the word ‘negligent’ would be appropriately applied.

In the place where we live, families routinely go hungry, don’t have shoes and can’t send their kids to school. Our neighbors sleep in crowded huts, wear the same clothes for a week and walk miles to see a nurse. And yet, with this scene as the backdrop, the same American Church that can manage to buy millions of dollars worth of “Just because we love you!” gifts refuses to use those same dollars to alleviate human suffering.

Americans have the luxury of having skewed priorities because, by and large, their needs are already met. What would truly change the American-gift-giver’s perspective is an exit from the first-world bubble and a true desire to know what the legitimate, third-world needs are. From much experience, I can say that, once on the field, it does not take long for American bauble to look alien and offensive when the intended recipient in front of you is either hungry, sick or afraid.

In case I sound like a gift-giving curmudgeon, let me free ya’ll up: Buy the candy and the bouncy balls and the glow in the dark toothbrushes. Yes. Go ahead and buy them. And send them! But here’s the caveat: Do that AFTER you’ve made sure that each and every recipient has a home and clothes and food and everything she needs.

You see, that same mama who taught me to be grateful at Christmas also taught me how to spoil the people I love. Here in the land of Where there is no Target, we have to wait for many of our American items to come across with visitors. Because space is limited and our list is usually pretty extensive, I have to do some negotiating with my mother to make sure that the innate Grandmother urge to spoil her grandkids doesn’t usurp actual necessities. Because I know she loves me, I’m free to say, “Grandma, the kids don’t need sugar. They need vitamins and socks and school supplies. Can we prioritize that instead?” And Grandma always says, sure! Because as much as she loves – and lives – to spoil those grandbabies, she cares about them enough to make sure their needs are met first.

So she sends vitamins and socks and school supplies… and all the s’mores ingredients that the left-over luggage space can handle. Despite my joking protest, the spoiling with sweets isn’t bad. We just need the other things as first priority. If I had told Grandma our needs and she had said, “I DON’T CARE. IT MAKES ME HAPPY SO I’M SENDING MARSHMELLOWS AND NOTHING ELSE…” Well shoot, Grandma. That wouldn’t be very loving, now would it?

If your gut reaction to negative press for OCC is, “they should be thankful,” you need to recognize that it is your purchasing power speaking – not compassion towards the poor. Because yes, all humans should be grateful for gifts, no matter what. But it is not ingratitude that leads those of us working amongst the poor to make the needs known. It is necessity. And urgency. And Stress. And if that does not call you to sympathy, you are in this for the wrong reasons. 

Giving gifts to the poor aught not be a consumer activity. But when first-world donors announce that they will only pay for that which makes them feel good, this “generosity” takes on a controlling element that needs to be exorcized. A true gift is one without stipulations, including your desire to “participate” or “teach your kids the true meaning of Christmas” or to foster some artificial “connection” to a small child far away.

Leveraging financial privilege in a way that self-gratifies and puts the rich-giver ahead of the poor is not Christ’s way.

Psalm 41:1 says it right:

Blessed is the one who considers the poor.

Are you considering?


  1. Amen, sister! So glad to see this articulated so clearly.

  2. Bethany, you have articulated something about American (my) culture that I've never been able to articulate without sounding ungrateful. Your examples, hypotheticals, and tone are a hard truth spoken with love. Well, well done.

  3. So... what should we put in those boxes???

    1. Find a missionary and give them the money you would have spent in items for the shoebox. It's hard to know generically what the real needs are off the kids where the boxes are received.

  4. I think you are missing the big picture of what Samaritan's Purse is accomplishing and their Operation Christmas Child has become an effective tool to assist local churches use the gift-filled shoeboxes as a tangible inroad for evangelism. The shoebox gifts allow them access to places they might never be welcomed otherwise. Samaritan’s Purse is a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world. Since 1970, Samaritan’s Purse has helped meet needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and famine with the purpose of sharing God’s love through His Son, Jesus Christ. The organization serves the church worldwide to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Operation Christmas Child is just one of several Ministry Projects Samaritans Purse . Below is their list.
    International Crisis Response
    Operation Christmas Child
    The Greatest Journey
    U.S. Disaster Relief
    World Medical Mission
    Greta Home and Academy
    Children’s Heart Project
    Operation Heal Our Patriots
    Animals, Agriculture & Livelihoods
    Children’s Ministries
    Construction Projects
    Crisis & Disaster Response
    Discipleship, Education & Training
    Feeding Programs
    Health & Medical Ministries
    Water, Sanitation & Hygiene
    Women’s Programs
    2017 Hurricanes
    Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts bless children with joy, hope, and love. Their shoebox is the first gift many children have ever received! The treasures and personal letters inside communicate that someone cares for them and give them an opportunity to experience the love of God. As shoebox gifts are distributed, local pastors or church leaders present the Gospel in a fun way designed for kids. Along with their shoebox gift, children also receive The Greatest Gift, a colorful presentation of the Gospel and a Bible in their own language.

    1. I see the author's point--I really do. Fill a hungry belly first, and then the starving people will be in a better place to understand and receive a message spoken by a missionary or pastor and to receive the gift of salvation that Jesus Christ offers. But I also realize others might only associate Samaritan's Purse with OCC, when it is really only a fraction of what Samaritan's Purse does. If filling a shoebox really does seem trite, I encourage people to refer to the list above and to give funds directly to Samaritan's Purse.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this wisdom & perspective. We need this truth.

    I love you, AND your amazing mom!

  6. I enjoyed reading this, and sometimes wonder myself why we really do what we do. And this is something I've questioned a lot. Especially when I saw a video recently about some kids that were "blessed" with a shoe box. "Growing up my sister and I had to share a pencil sharpener. So imagine my delight when I saw my own!" My siblings and I actually laughed, because we don't own pencil sharpeners for the simple reason we can never seem to keep them around and we prefer using a knife to sharpen our pencils. A pencil is great! But a sharpener is trivial. I know we send things in these boxes that the kids supposedly really need, like soap and clothes. But sometimes it seems we could do so much more, sending less junk but still giving with love.

  7. so so well expressed. thanks for spending the time to explain how this all works out where you are, Bethany. makes much sense.

    I so much LOVED the alternative that you, Bethany, helped Felicia and Adam come up as an alternative to OCC. Folks at our church are asked to donate $5 or more per button (small decorative ones w/ a pin on the back that evidently Zambian kids enjoy wearing). The button can then be given to a child - w/ a note written by the sender - but almost no $ is used for this. Rather the $ is sent to Choshen Farm who will use it to buy necessities or other appropriate local items - thus supporting the local economy and allowing appropriate gifts to be given. And at the same time, giving room for some tangible generosity and kindness to be shown on this end. yeah!!