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NEWS FEATURE: Some Shoppers Find More Meaning, Less Stress, in Alternative Gifts

c. 2004 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Cheryl Smith had given up on Christmas _ the commercial aspects of it, that is. But this holiday season, the Laporte, Minn., secretary is giving gifts to 10 friends and family members by supporting a Dallas-area ministry that aids persecuted pastors in China. WorldServe Ministries provides donors who give […]

c. 2004 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Cheryl Smith had given up on Christmas _ the commercial aspects of it, that is. But this holiday season, the Laporte, Minn., secretary is giving gifts to 10 friends and family members by supporting a Dallas-area ministry that aids persecuted pastors in China.

WorldServe Ministries provides donors who give at least $50 with three items _ a small glass ornament, devotional book and prayer card with the alias of an underground minister _ to give to the individual in whose name they’ve made a donation. For Smith it makes sense: giving a gift that helps people with far greater needs than the donor or the donor’s loved one.

“Jesus said if you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me,” said Smith, explaining the reasons for her alternative giving. “It’s really giving to the Lord, giving to his work. … They’re part of the body of Christ. … Even though they’re a world away from us physically, we can help them by sending an ornament to a friend.”

As Christmas approaches, some shoppers are flipping through charity catalogs and clicking on religious Web sites instead of hitting the stores this season. Skipping the toys and trinkets of traditional gift-giving, they’re opting to honor those they care about by donating money to churches in need or suffering populations abroad. The latest online examples include a Lutheran World Relief Community Quilt that features “gift squares” that fund everything from education to water projects and an online “wish list” from Catholic Extension of particular needs of rural Catholic churches.

Edna Wagschal of Waynesville, N.C., said she plans to give $2,000 in donations in the names of her adult children and grandchildren using projects of Lutheran World Relief that fit their interests. Something in the health category _ perhaps Vitamin A supplements for several El Salvador communities or training for village health care workers who deliver babies in Mali _ will be given in the name of her daughter who is a nurse.

The 83-year-old grandmother served as a liaison to Lutheran churches for Lutheran World Relief before she retired about 15 years ago.

“I came back from a LWR trip to West Africa one year and walked into Macy’s in New York and I couldn’t stand it after being where there was such awful poverty,” she said. “I said, `I’m not going to do any more Christmas shopping in stores.”’

Harriet Prichard, president of the interfaith Alternative Gifts International in Wichita, Kan., said most of the 350 “alternative gift markets” her group helped organize last year were held in churches of a variety of denominations. She expects at least that many will be held across the country this year.

On recent fall weekends, volunteers at churches presented with displays of 33 international projects. People who donated then received gift cards to let loved ones know about the alternative present given in their name.

Gerald Iversen, national coordinator of the non-profit Alternatives for Simple Living, takes the alternative giving idea a step further. His Iowa-based organization sells “gratitude cards” that people can give to loved ones to encourage them to give to a favorite charity instead of to them.

“Some people think it’s a little presumptuous,” he said of the cards that include spaces to write in suggested charitable organizations. “We don’t.”

But Iversen cautioned that it’s good to know people’s likes and dislikes before you send a donation in their name.

“I could think of a number of organizations that if somebody gave money in my name, I’d want it back,” he said, discussing the chance that someone could be offended by these alternative gestures.

“That’s definitely a risk.”

The reasons people choose this giving option vary, but experts and individual donors say it’s more than a matter of money.

“It’s not even, `I feel better,”’ said Paula Cooey, professor of Christianity and culture at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. “It’s, `It might make a difference for someone who doesn’t feel good.”’

Ron Sider, the president of the Pennsylvania-based Evangelicals for Social Action, said alternative gift-givers fit into a larger trend of people moving away from the rat race of life and refusing to be won over by the constant pitches of materialism.

“The big lie of contemporary advertising is that we get love and joy and fulfillment through things,” said Sider, who is completing his fifth edition of a book titled “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity.”

“Every religion in the world knows and says we get joy and fulfillment through right relationships with God and neighbor.”

Retailers, anticipating a projected $220 billion in sales this Christmas season, aren’t threatened by those who eschew the mall.

“The big part about the holiday season is holiday cheer and giving, not just gift giving but charitable giving,” said Scott Krugman, spokesman for the Washington-based National Retail Federation.

For Charles Favreau, the idea behind his alternative gifts is not to honor the charity or his loved ones so much, but to honor the one whose birth is being celebrated.

Favreau, an 81-year-old lifelong Catholic, is giving $900 in the names of his nine children to Catholic Extension, a Chicago-based charity that will pass his funds along to the mission church in North Dakota he attended as a child that needs new lighting for its sanctuary.

“I can give them a gift on their birthday,” he said. “Christmas honors Christ. … That’s the whole name of the game and we’ve gotten away from it.”

KRE/JL END BANKS

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