READER SUBMISSION: My young family lived in poverty for years, but we attended church in a very wealthy area in Arizona. Our church arranges for everyone in the congregation to receive member ministers whose purpose is to make monthly in-home visits. These visits are both a well-being check and an opportunity to share a spiritual message. One day close to Christmas, my visiting minister (who lived much more comfortably than we did) called and asked if she could stop by. On her visit earlier in the month, she’d noticed our “Christmas tree” had been cut out of cardboard I found in a dumpster and taped to the wall, its ornaments drawn on with crayons. Our stockings were made out of old shirts, sewed together with yarn.
She brought her three grandchildren with her on this extra monthly visit—and a truck full of gifts for my toddlers. One of the grandchildren looked around our apartment in awe and asked, “Is this a hotel room?” We lived in a small, two bedroom apartment, but it was a normal apartment and didn’t look like a hotel. He certainly wasn’t to blame for his naive comment, but it was obvious he had never been inside an apartment before.
Then this visiting minister made her grandchildren watch as my little children opened all the gifts in front of them so they could see all the good they were doing. At the end of the spectacle, she told her grandchildren something like: “See how we need to give and not just receive? Not everyone has it as good as us.”
They finally left, and I sat on the couch and broke down sobbing. They left thinking they were special for “helping,” but I felt like a project to be fixed. They thought they had done a good deed, but I felt like I had been put on display for their benefit. I was utterly humiliated knowing those children believed they were better than us. I felt like I had been used–used to make themselves feel better about themselves. I felt they weren’t interested in my family’s actual needs. I felt this way because what they had done showed me they weren’t.
If it was about our needs, they would have considered that we didn’t need or want the truckload of toys they had brought. They brought dozens of large toys that didn’t fit in our teeny apartment. They brought noisy toys that are annoying to begin with, but that weren’t the best for apartments with paper thin walls next to the neighbors. They brought toys that were outside the age range for my children.
If this visiting minister had considered our needs, she might have realized that, although we now had a houseful of toys, my children still would not be receiving anything from Santa on Christmas morning. If she had considered our needs, maybe she would have included a gift card to a grocery store. But I guess she hadn’t seen the empty fridge.
This visit wasn’t about us. It was about her and her grandchildren.
This woman was only doing what our religious culture teaches is charity and service. The items brought were fabulously generous. And I can absolutely acknowledge that she was probably just doing her best with what she knew.
But we can learn and do better. We can serve year-round. And most of all, we can do it in a way in which humans—especially children—are not pitifully shamed by receiving a “charity holiday.”
I’d have much preferred her to have secretly brought the gifts to me or my husband, along with wrapping paper and tape so that we, as parents, could become the givers of a Christmas filled with the magic of a visit from Santa. Or she could have given us a gift card to a department store and grocery store and let us decide what was needed.
I’m certainly not perfect, and I’m sure I have been charitable out of a selfish desire to feel better about myself. Most of us do this sometimes, if we are honest with ourselves. But today, as I see the Christmas season in full swing, I remember this experience and, with it, Matthew’s admonition to not let the left hand know what the right is doing when giving alms (Matt. 1).
READER BIO: Alice is a cross stitch, coffee, and cat lover who is procrastinating going back to therapy. She has two teens and one seriously hot partner. Her pride and joy is her niece who is named after her.
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5 Replies to “A Story of Christmas Charity and the Gift of Humiliation”
What a helpful post at understanding what can go terribly wrong when charity is really about the giver and not understanding the receiver.
Beautifully expressed and much needed. Thank you.
So much about this made me mad. So much thoughtlessness. I would have at least thought they would have left the presents for you to open when you wanted. It reminded me of a rich person from an old novel that thinks they are so amazing and generous, but really embarrassed the people they were trying to help.
Gift cards. They are amazing for so many reasons.
So sad, I’m sorry that your family was treated as a charity case. The heart of the giver should be to bless the people they are giving to, not to look good and make themselves feel better.
My family grew up with little and the gifts that we recieved were nice, but not always what we needed. This was before gift cards were a thing. When our family had enough to help other families in need, my family would ask what their kids were in need of or wanted special and then gave the gifts secretly. (It’s much more rewarding as a parent to be able to give gifts to your children)
So when we brought treats//food//gifts, the bag with the presents were given to Mom and/or Dad to take and give on Christmas. That way the kids saw the gifts were from their parents and not the strangers that delivered the other supplies.
We also didn’t stay, we helped unload and if the family invited us in we would chat for a little while, but never did we expect them to open everything and then expect their thanks. It’s humbling to recieve help from others. My family was well aware of that. So we gave, wished them a Merry Christmas and went on our way.
Your story reminds me of my childhood growing up in a branch in the Midwest where everyone knew each other’s financial status and my family had 7 children and were very poor. My parents taught us to never speak about our needs or problems to others, like it was a grand family secret. But many knew. Especially once we lost our house and had to live in my grandmother’s basement for a year. One Christmas we had a giant stocking (like about 5 feet tall) dropped off at our door and it was filled with presents. Each box was labelled Day 12 to Day 1 for the 12 days of Christmas. It was the kindest thing anyone had done for us and it was completely anonymous. We knew the people were from our Branch, and they must have been well off financially. The gifts were fun and useful–most of all useful for me as a teenager was a fleece jacket. It was something nice I couldn’t just go buy and it was so warm. They had gotten fleece jackets for every single one of my sisters and I. I hope to someday be able to give like that and pay it forward. Useful, anonymous gifts are the best way to make sure it’s not about you. I’m so sorry you were made to feel humiliated and your situation was used to make others feel better about themselves. Your story is so well written and I’ll always remember it as a lesson for my own life and to share with others.
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