Christmas gifts

It’s Christmas time again and for Ministers it means the planning of well-attended services, pastoral visits with folks having a hard time (usually because of grief and missing a special one during this most intense family time) and attending to one’s own family needs, decorating, buying gifts, preparing for a celebration. But there is another annual challenge that we clergy rarely discuss and that is the calls that come close to Christmas with requests for help.

In years gone by I would get calls from offices near the church offering to buy a Christmas meal and presents for “needy families”. These offices trusted Ministers to know who would be an appropriate recipient. They were being very generous but there was an element of judgement and sentimentality mixed in as well. These office folks wanted a family “really in need”, which I took to mean families deemed to be trying hard to get work and be frugal with their resources. The sentimentality piece could be discerned in the additional request that the family have small children. The office workers loved thinking about their gifts being open by small children filled with wonder.

I do think I understand middle class people as I grew up one myself and became one as an adult. My grandparents were working class, having survived the depression and war years through hard, hard work and thrift. All had big dreams but could not afford to live them so opted for hands-on work that paid little and used up any and all of their considerable physical energy and stamina. They worked hard.

The old fashioned sense of class and fixed social movement kept them from feeling resentful toward those who lived in the south end of the city, people with money and resources. They just assumed things were as they were meant to be, “why complain, it won’t change anything.” So in the 1970’s when incomes rose, the children of this generation got university degrees and jobs were plentiful this generation’s thrift and acceptance became out of fashion and slightly jarring. Baby boomers would spend as their desires grew, like their parents boomers worked hard but they felt they “deserved it”.

In the world of church you have both the WW2 generation and the boomers remaining in the pews and both have a strong sense of charity and kindness but also a sense that one ought to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps with hard work.” That ethic has remained a constant and Ministers are frequently told to distribute benevolent funds and gifts with this in mind.

The challenge is that the poor of our communities don’t fit neatly into this framework. There are persons living with mental illnesses, there are those with addictions, there are the working poor, folks with minimum wage jobs who cannot afford the basics we take for granted. Of course there are also some who could work but choose not to, people who spend their money without much discipline and people whom have shifted into a mindset of dependency. But these folks are the minority. Trouble is our middle class mindset only sees what it wants to see and we judge the poor by small things like whether they smoke or take a taxi or buy the “wrong” food at the grocery store.

Offices rarely call and offer to “supply” Christmas anymore. I think the idea of looking to the church to know their community is no longer an impulse. For a variety of reasons church seem to have lost a connection to their community. This saddens me profoundly and I work hard to push that creeping reality at bay. But on occasion the calls do come. I find myself now selecting families who have no other resources and for whom the “gift” will make a difference. But it is never easy.