So you love the idea of Operation Christmas Child but you don’t want to support a ministry run by Franklin Graham because of his statements on immigration, religious liberty or America politics. Or maybe you never have loved the Christmas shoebox program but would like to have something similar to engage your church or family in a missions-minded holiday gift. What to do?
Whatever your motivation for seeking ideas, it will help first to understand some of the reasons the Christmas shoebox project of Franklin Graham’s nonprofit has been so wildly successful. First and foremost, Operation Christmas Child offers a simple, practical, tactile project that whole families and congregations can do together and feel good about their efforts. For many American families with young children, Operation Christmas Child provides a teachable moment for their privileged children to understand that children in other parts of the world aren’t as fortunate as them. And that’s a good thing, by all accounts.
But according to a number of missionaries and missiologists, projects like Operation Christmas Child do much more to help Americans believe they are generous than to actually meet real needs of others through generosity. To understand this phenomenon, read the book When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
Christmas is coming, and Christian families and churches still want something tactile — something they can see and touch and physically do — that will extend their generosity in the season. Something more than putting money in an offering plate.
Let’s pause for just a moment to talk about that offering plate, though. Just as we have seen this fall with hurricane and flood relief projects, those doing good on the front lines of service tell us over and over that the most effective way to help is to give money. That’s because there’s some truth to Lucy’s request in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that all she wants for Christmas is “tens and twenties.” Cash donations are the most flexible and most portable way to help others; there are no shipping fees, no problem with sending the wrong thing, no risk of missing a deadline. This is why giving to your church or denomination’s annual missions offering is a no-mistake and generous act of Christmas generosity. Please do this first.
And yet — particularly for families with children — putting together a physical gift that requires effort and thought teaches lifelong lessons. Putting money in the offering plate may not scratch that itch.
There are some excellent intermediary concepts, like those offered by Heifer International and World Vision, where donors purchase cows and chickens and sheep to help rural people live sustainably or where donors sponsor specific children with whom they may correspond. I recently heard about a church that is working together to provide a virtual farm for a village.
But if you’re after a project you can physically touch and see, here are 10 ideas:
Toiletry kits. Most local relief agencies and homeless shelters go through thousands of small toiletry kits every year. Small bags with sample sizes of toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, shampoo and the like make possible basic hygiene to folks who are displaced from permanent housing. And these have a long shelf life, making them ideal for as-needed use. Think also about children in shelters and the kinds of things — stickers, crayons, activity pages — they might love to receive.
Cookies and baked goods for neighbors and shut-ins. In a culture where most all food is store-bought, the gifts of homemade cookies, cakes, pies and breads signals a deep level of care for another person. Think of those around you, or in your community, even in your congregation, who likely seldom get home-baked goods, and surprise them. Most kids love to bake, and this is a good family project.
Physical visits to the homebound, imprisoned and hospitalized. Perhaps the best way to teach children about generosity is to model for them the giving of our most precious commodity: time. Call a local senior care facility and ask them to identify residents who never have visitors; yes, there are such people. Call the nearest prison and ask about inmates who never have visitors. Talk to the chaplain at your local hospital to find out who are the patients in long-term care who seldom have visitors; maybe even children who are hospitalized. Or ask a pastor in your church to connect you with homebound members who cannot attend the children’s Christmas pageant or church fellowship. And then take yourself and your family to visit any of those persons in person.
Angel trees. Many churches and nonprofit organizations do some variation on an “angel” tree at Christmas. Pick up a Christmas gift list (often in the form of a paper ornament) and purchase the things needed by those in need and then return the gifts to the requesting group. That way you physically shop for something but you know the thing you purchase is specifically needed. To most closely replicate the effect of an international program, work with a local refugee ministry to provide gifts cards or needed items for newcomers to our country. I serve on the board of a local refugee ministry, for example, that hosts a huge Christmas party for newly arrived immigrants, where we tell them the story of St. Nicholas and give gifts to every family.
Care packages for those being released from prison. In most states, when inmates have served their time and are released, they are given maybe $100 and a bus ticket. From there, they are on their own. The chaplain’s office at any prison can tell you what organizations (if any) work with newly released prisoners. Think about what they might need to begin re-entry into society, and create care packages that can be used throughout the year.
Targeted gifts for missionaries. Every missionary serving anywhere in the world has needs for their projects and ministries. Work through your denominational missions agency or other missions-sending body to connect with one or two field personnel and find out what they need — maybe Bibles, maybe art supplies, maybe music, maybe instruments, maybe diapers — and send that as a collected gift.
Christmas trees and decorations. Not all families can afford a Christmas tree and decorations, not even an artificial tree. Talk to the counselor at your child’s school or call your nearest public school to find out if there are families who would enjoy the gift of a new Christmas tree and decorations. Talk to a local refugee resettlement agency to identify immigrants who never have experienced Christmas.
Gifts for those who have no families. In our society where adults are just as likely to live alone as to live with someone else, there are thousands of people who have no one to give to or receive from at Christmas. Your pastor or your local senior center may know how to connect you with neighbors who would receive their only Christmas gift this year from you. These are not always poor people; instead, they are people who live in isolation by choice or circumstance.
Invite someone to Christmas dinner. One of the most personal gifts you can give is to invite someone into your home to share Christmas dinner. Identify someone who would be alone on Christmas Day, and invite them to be part of your family. And maybe put a small gift for them under your Christmas tree.
Be a secret Santa. Often, the best feeling from giving comes when you do it in secret. Think of a family in need or an individual in a rough patch of life. Choose a simple gift for them — maybe even a gift card or cashier’s check — and mail it to them in an envelope without a return address. Or take a stack of gift cards to your pastor and instruct the pastor to give them to individuals in need without telling you who gets them. There is profound joy in being part of a secret that you know will do good.