It's an amazing time of year, one in which various members of the faith community collect money to support various local charitable causes. These actions form the basis of what I term "living faith" or faith that "practices what it preaches." Yet not all faith communities support local needs during this time of year. Some are preoccupied with staging elaborate productions of pageants created to support perceptions of what people need to see during this season. Others are collecting money for causes in other areas of the world, while Alaska itself remains one of the greatest mission field opportunities in the world. I'm puzzled that Alaska faith communities often show more concern with far-flung world areas than the neighbor in need in their own backyard.
Additionally, I'm absolutely amazed with parents who go in debt up to their eyeballs to show their children they love them and want to give them their heart's desire for Christmas. The Gallup spending forecast estimates that the average Christmas spending this year in the U.S. will be $781, up from $704 last year. Overall, the National Retail Federation projects this spending will top $600 billion this year.
Christmas has become a worldwide phenomenon. Even though its roots are Christian, it's become largely secular, altering a wonderful religious tradition. And our children, what are they to think? Who hasn't seen a child opening a vast array of presents, only to see them sad and dejected minutes later because they didn't bring the happiness they hoped and wished for?
I believe faith communities can foster false expectations by vast toy drives for children going into the holidays. What many of these families need is food and shelter security. Children can't eat toys. It's ludicrous that this is not better understood from the get-go. Faith communities could do more to help people during this season by providing basic foodstuffs and de-emphasizing toy giving programs. Food and shelter are critical to families in need. A sleeping bag might be a much higher priority than a toy. Toy giving indicates, for the most part, that Christmas is identified with consumerism and things we like, as opposed to things that are basic to life. It's the wrong lesson to teach.
Jewish Community Initiative
I'm impressed with several local faith-based organizations that are bending over backwards to help at this time of year. One that caught my eye recently is the Mitzvah Mall, a project of the local Jewish community at Congregation Beth Sholom. Mitzvah means a command to do good deeds and is very ancient in practice. Mitzvah is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah, the five books of Moses. When at the Simchat Torah dinner and ceremony at Congregation Beth Sholom recently, I learned about this unique fundraiser, but Congregation Beth Sholom's website says it best. "Think about a bizarre bazaar: an alternative gift fair. There are rooms filled with booths, but the 'vendors' are nonprofit organizations and charities. Instead of buying more material gifts and stuff, shoppers can donate to local nonprofits on behalf of friends, family or others on their holiday gift list. Give a gift that keeps on giving. The 'gifts' are in various price ranges beginning at $5. Shoppers receive decorative gift cards to present to the person in whose honor the gift was purchased. What a mitzvah: resisting holiday consumerism, doing good deeds, bestowing a wonderful gift and having fun doing it."
Mitzvah Mall is happening Sunday, Dec. 7, from 12 to 3 p.m. at Congregation Beth Sholom, 7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd. Come prepared to donate to one or more of the 25 nonprofits that will be present. Congregation Beth Sholom has had fantastic success with this brief event, raising over $14,000 in three hours last year. I'll be there to observe this event in person.
ChangePoint Giving Programs
ChangePoint, Alaska largest church, has a number of life-giving programs it supports with holiday giving by its members. The congregation uses three avenues of giving during the holiday season.
1. Participation in partnership with Cornerstone Church to provide hundreds of Christmas shoe boxes to Samaritan's Purse and its effort to bless children, particularly in the villages of Alaska.
2. Participation in two "Angel Tree" projects to benefit both the students of Alaska Christian College and the residents of the McKinnell House here in Anchorage.
3. The primary fundraiser is what they call the uncommon gift offering. This is collected the last Sunday before Christmas and always goes to support or advance a local charity. Over the years, they have done many things with it. Examples include raising around $120,000 for Alaska Christian College to graduate all its seniors without debt and giving over $130,000 one year as the launching gift for the Downtown Soup Kitchen's new facility.
Lutheran Giving Initiatives
Lutheran Social Services of Alaska provides food and shelter for thousands of recipients in our local community. Last Sunday's Beer and Hymns fundraiser by Christ Our Savior Lutheran raised close to $5,000 for LSSA. Other Lutheran congregations are involved with a series of local giving initiatives touching local lives.
The holiday season is a wonderful time to plant the right seed about the proper use of money. Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. Churches can effectively use the holidays as ways to draw attention away from the individual and place the emphasis where it belongs.
I'd love to hear your stories about your church's holiday giving efforts. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org so they can be shared with other readers of this column.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.