Let's see a show of hands: How many of you bought gifts for the less fortunate this year? A Christmas shoebox? Or for your church's Christmas outreach? Or rescue mission or homeless shelter? Or Angel Tree?
I'm guessing there's a lot of hands up out there. Americans are generous at Christmas. It's wonderful. Good for you, America. I'm guessing there's not a lot of other countries that meet your level of generosity this time of year.
There's just one thing that concerns me: All these gifts were purchased for invisible people. People without faces, without names. Sometimes, charity gift programs do include actual names. You know, like when you get a little gift tag: Buy a gift for Tom, age 12. He would like a football. That's a little more personal, but Tom is still invisible. The gift buyer will never meet Tom.
These programs can be great, and they have their place. But it does cause a huge disconnect between the giver and the recipient, or to be more blunt, the "rich" and the "poor." The thing is, I think we "givers" kind of like it that way. It makes "helping the poor" as neat and easy as swiping a credit card. Present bought. Present wrapped. Poor person happy. Rich person happy. Duty done.
We want to help the poor, but we also want it to be easy. Doing more, like say, building relationships and getting involved in the messy complications of other people's lives--well, that's a whole lot harder. But we must force ourselves to answer the question: What really is going to make a difference? Giving a gift to a faceless person we will never meet, or getting down and dirty with the problems in another person's life?
What we might not realize is that the invisible recipients of our generous Christmas gifts are actually not quite as invisible as we might think. They might be cleaning our houses or our workplaces, or mowing our lawns. They might be doing our nails or delivering our newspapers. Maybe they are serving us weekly at our local diner. Maybe we're paying for them to care for our ailing grandmother. Of course, not everyone who works these jobs is in the "poor" category. But I would guess that if we look hard enough, all of us, every day, have contact with people who are.
Often, they might look different from us or speak a different language, which makes the barrier between us and them greater than just economics. Often, we content ourselves with knowing that we are paying them, so that should be enough.
But is it really?
Some people think that the way to eradicate poverty is for the government to do more. Some people think that the solution is found in generosity to charitable organizations. I think the solution is a whole lot more complicated than that, but we are heading in the right direction if we prioritize relationships as the key.
Building a relationship goes far beyond a paycheck. It means talking. Spending time together. Being a part of each other's lives. Learning from each other. And then, once that relationship is built, looking for ways to help raise that person's standard of living. Not just by generosity. But by mentoring. Helping. Tutoring. Investing.
If it sounds hard, let me assure you that in reality it's even harder. The more I've tried to help people in poverty, the more complicated my life becomes. Many, many times, I just get a pit in my stomach and want it all to go away. Often, I don't know what to do. Often, I wonder if I am making things worse. But then a friend tells me that her 9-year-old daughter ranked 6 in her class of 200 students, and it's all worth it. I get a glimpse of their better life coming. We rejoice together. And in the end, the miracle of real relationships is that my life becomes so much richer. Often, it is I who have something to learn.
The righteous care about justice for the poor. (Prov. 29:7)
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matt. 25)
If every established American family chose to invest deeply in the life of one immigrant, refugee, or financially struggling family, then we wouldn't need more government programs, or even more private charities. Think of the very real difference we could make in America.
And then, come Christmas time, instead of buying presents for nameless, faceless strangers, we could have the joy of spoiling a family who we know and love and has enriched our lives.
Now that would be a great resolution for 2017.
Every year, as a Christmas present for my house cleaner, we take her family to the local water park. It's a highlight of the year for her kids, and an incredible joy to us.