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Practical Ways to be Generous Without a Shoebox

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

About the Author: Author of Stronger than Death, Finding Home, Djiboutilicious, Welcome to Djibouti, and The Expat Cookbook, Rachel Pieh Jones is a thought leader in conversations surrounding sustainable humanitarianism and faith-based work. She and her husband, Tom, live in East Africa and run a school. They have three children: Magdalene (20), Henry (20), and Lucy (15).

A few years ago I wrote a post called 13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about Stuff You Give Poor Kids. I stand by that post but one of its shortcomings is that I failed to provide specific, practical ways for people to serve and be generous. Without offering useful solutions, tearing down former ways of giving results in people feeling hurt and paralyzed.

I still have a lot of big feelings about things like the White Savior Complex and the American Christian emphasis on stuff, on consumerism, when we talk about generosity. But I’ve specifically been asked if I could be more useful, which is ultimately the point – not to point fingers or complain, but to help us all grow and do these things better.

Some of these ideas take time, relational energy, creativity and courage; others are strictly financial. COVID has also complicated generosity. Deeply entrenched racism impacts our giving, serving, and receiving. We cannot ignore these realities and giving wisely will not erase them. But in a year that has exhausted every single person on the planet, we need to continue to choose kindness. Not a weak, generic, nice kindness, but a radical commitment to the truth that we are kin. That kindness is about embracing the humanity in the other person. That kin(d)-ness requires something of us – and it might not be easy.

So… onward to some ideas for helping without hurting, for radical kindness. (*some of these will have to wait until after the pandemic or be adjusted accordingly).

Send money to the place you want to bless with gifts. You can still give money, but how? Funnel it through someone you know and trust. Help the local church hire unemployed parents to do odd jobs around the building, or hire them yourself. They can keep the income from that work to buy Christmas dinner or gifts for their families.

Is there a single mom or dad near you? She works so hard to care for her family. Call her up, even if you barely know her. Ask if you could do her laundry. Tell her what day you go to the grocery store for pick-up and ask if she would like you to pick up her order, too. Get her groceries and just drop them off. Oh - and pay for them if you want to. Tell her that if her kids have a snow day or get sick, you will babysit so she doesn’t have to miss a day of work.

Visit someone in the hospital, in a home for the elderly or disabled, or in your local prison. Read Christmas stories, bring cookies, provide a stocking stuffed with goodies like warm socks, gift a new card game or gum. Bring your kids along. Ask the chaplain at the hospital or prison if there is someone who was recently released and might need a care package or a home visit. Transitioning out of the hospital, and especially out of prison, can be really hard and lonely. *a COVID note – don’t visit. But send voice messages, write letters, order pizza for the nurses, or have a week of meals delivered to a support or care home.

Do you live near kids with two working parents who are trying to make ends meet? Offer to take their kids sledding when you go with your own kids. Offer to make Christmas cookies with or for them, maybe their favorite recipe.

Is there someone at your child’s school who needs a Christmas tree or who can’t afford to bring treats to the school holiday party? Ask the teacher and ask if you can provide an anonymous gift so that the child can participate with pride.

Write letters to people who live far away. You can do this as a family or with a Sunday School class or small group. Draw pictures, write silly poems. Remind people who were once part of your community that they are still remembered.

Pregnant moms nearby? There might be a center near you that serves young, pregnant, or new moms. Sometimes there are homes for them if they need shelter, sometimes there are service centers that provide diapers and clothes, counsel, and medical care. Find one of these and see what they need.

Do you live near an area impacted by fire, flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster? Maybe a family needs someone to play games with their kids in a shelter for the afternoon so the parents can return to their destroyed home and pick through the debris without traumatizing the kids. Maybe they need warm winter socks or new pots and pans. Send books – always send books.

Find out who in your town works with refugees, newly arrived immigrants, families with children who have special needs, someone recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness, a nursing home for the elderly… and volunteer or make a financial donation.

Acknowledge your own needs. Let people serve you. This can be profound in many ways.

COVID time additions:

Disrupted travel plans. How can you repurpose the money that would have been spent on a volunteer trip or a vacation?

Unemployment. Many people have lost jobs, taken pay cuts, or cut back on hours. Many of these are not people in countries far away, they are most likely in your community. How can you be a practical blessing to help them get through a hard time?

Being the one in need. Maybe you have COVID, maybe you’ve lost your job, maybe you are the one in need. Remember how much joy you have when you are generous with others? You now have the opportunity to give someone else that joy by asking for help. This is perhaps the most important addition to my former post. Being on the receiving end of generosity is enormously important in addressing our attitudes and behavior.

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