The gifts of the Magi make perfect sense theologically, but the presents certainly weren’t practical. The arrival of a child requires diapers and bottles, cribs and strollers, feeding supplies and bathing equipment. Sometimes the gifts we give to our neighbors resemble those of the traveling kings in terms of their usefulness.
One Christmas Eve at Cass Community stands out in my memory. Volunteers were serving a hot dinner prior to the candlelight service. As each guest finished eating, a volunteer would give the person a nicely wrapped present. The items were simple things like fancy hand lotion or a warm scarf. People were generally pleased to receive something. Then from the far end of the gym, I heard a woman scream, “Wind chimes! What the ‘(expletive)’ do I need wind chimes for? I’m homeless!” Needless to say, the volunteer was speechless. I attempted to resolve the issue thinking all the while that although the guest had a colorful vocabulary, she had a point.
In this new system our donors can gift the parents with the gladness that comes with selecting and giving presents.
Recognizing an ocean of unmet needs, we established an “adoption” system for the holidays. In short, individuals and parents compiled lists of what they wanted for Christmas, including clothing sizes. Then, generous donors would take the lists to area stores and buy items for those who needed help.
One of the problems with the system was that some recipients had exhaustive and expensive lists, and some barely asked for anything. Another problem was that several donors were able to provide many posh presents while others, although equally bighearted, were only able to give one or two small things.
Both problems revealed themselves on distribution day. Recipient parents, many with children in tow, would sit in the lunchroom waiting for their names to be called off. One family would need to make multiple trips to take away computer games, a big-screen television and a portable basketball set-up while another followed with just a package of underwear and a book. Maybe this was exactly what they had requested, maybe not. Needless to say, despite the Christmas carols playing on a cassette player and the homemade cookies and punch available, by the middle of the give-away, the mood of the room was mixed. Some folks were elated. Others felt slighted. It was clear to me that we needed a new way to exchange gifts for Christmas.
I shared with one of our board members my vision for a “Christmas Store.” I told her we would give donors a list of suggested presents for a variety of ages and both genders. Then, we would arrange the items in the church gym as if it were a department store — a section for clothing, another one for games and toys, and a third area for books. Pre-approved parents would pay a dollar per child so that there was the dignity of purchasing the gifts. Then, they will walk through the store picking out several gifts for each of their children. We could even scrounge up some shopping carts for the day. At the end, volunteers can either help them wrap their purchases or give them paper, tape, ribbon, and name cards so the parents can do it at home. In this new system, I explained, our donors can gift the parents with the gladness that comes with selecting and giving presents.
Would people donate to the store instead of to families? We started collecting items right after Halloween. Not only did the donors exceed our expectations with the quantity and quality of gifts, but many volunteers were eager to staff the store. They stocked the shelves, helped parents look for sizes, handled food and beverages for the shoppers, and stood in for Santa’s elves as gift wrappers.
The Christmas store dramatically changed the mood of gift giving at Cass. The parents were grateful. The volunteers enjoyed the exchanges. Most of the donors understood the reasons for the store, and their support was evidenced by the avalanche of games, toys, dolls, and clothing we received. Occasionally, someone would say that they really preferred the adopt-a-family model, and a few moved on to others agencies, especially those that allowed them to deliver the gifts right to the children themselves.
Every Christmas Eve, after worship, I deliver a stocking to every resident in each Cass building or shelter. When I was almost done with these Santa duties, I stopped at our facility for homeless women and children with AIDS. There, as I went door to door dropping off the loot, at least four of the mothers invited me in, not just to see their trees, but the presents beneath them. They told me about every gift and solicited my feedback about the choices. I knew then and there that in the morning, the parents would be as elated as their children because we had allowed them to give meaningful gifts.
This article is excerpted from Faith’s book This Far by Faith: Twenty Years at Cass Community (Cass Community Publishing House, 2014). It is available from the publisher as well as Cokesbury and Amazon.