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A new way of giving at Christmas

Replace consumer frenzy with acts of charity

By Brenda Suderman

From The Winnipeg Free Press, November 26, 2006

Alice Wiens (left) and Lea Frechette (centre) work with
MCC’s Kathy Fast to pack school kits for kids overseas.
Photo by Mike Aporius/Winnipeg Free Press

FOOD to feed a family of five, two hens and a rooster, and a fruit tree in Zambia. It's not exactly The Twelve Days of Christmas, but some Manitobans are singing a different song when it comes to holiday giving.

They're shopping for a little charity to put under the Christmas tree.

"In the last two years, the whole idea of alternative gift giving has taken off," explains Brad Reimer of Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba. Now in its second year of producing a Christmas giving catalogue, the organization saw more than $500,000 in sales of alternative gifts last year.

The premise is simple: Instead of buying bath beads or movie tickets for someone on your Christmas list, you pick from a list of virtual gift offerings such as school supplies, farm animals, or medicine that will benefit someone overseas. In most cases, the recipient receives a card explaining what was purchased, the giver is mailed a charitable donation receipt to file away until tax time, and someone far away benefits from the gift.

"You're not just sending (a gift) to the person here, you're sending it to someone overseas," explains Daranne Mills of Canadian Lutheran World Relief of the attraction of these gifts that keep on giving.

The organization's gifts from the heart campaign has grown considerably since its inception in 2003, last year accounting for five per cent of total annual individual gifts.

"It's something tangible. It gives a face to the gift," Mills says of the CLWR's catalogue program which features items like pediatric dialysis ($300) fruit trees in Zambia ($75) and health education for young girls in India ($25). "They can give $50 to the project and that gift would be well used."

That tangible nature is exactly what appeals to most donors, says MCC's Reimer, whose organization's catalogue includes school supplies ($86 for 10 students), farm animals ($29 for a goat, sheep or 18 rabbits), or a bag of cement to help build a dam ($9).

"I think people with younger children pick up the giving catalogue," he says. "They're looking for alternatives, they're looking for ideas for children to connect with beyond themselves."

Donors can also choose to plant trees, purchase food for Ethiopian children who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS, or pay to have a tattoo removed from the arm of a former Honduran gang member.

Some of these virtual catalogues use a shopping cart template similar to other on line consumer sites, others do a soft sell and use language like "gifts" and "help."

These projects may all be worthy and good, but that's not a direction the United Church of Canada has chosen to follow, explains the conference minister for Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario.

"We are not into development in the same way Mennonite Central Committee and World Vision are," says Bill Gillis, who is supportive of those organizations. "Our overseas work tends to be more long term."

Picking gifts from a catalogue, even if it is for Christian charity or relief, follows a model of consumerism and over-consumption, argues the organizer of the anti-consumerism campaign Buy Nothing Christmas (www.buynothingchristmas.org), now celebrating its sixth holiday season.

"These gift-giving incentives by non-profit organizations are highly problematic because they buy into the mindset that we could shop our way to peace and happiness," says Aiden Enns, the Winnipeg-based founder and publisher of Geez magazine.

Preferring gifts of talent and time instead of consumerism of any sort, Enns will admit to some value in these catalogues as an alternative to the buying frenzy about to begin in shopping malls.

"We move forward with small gestures of generosity with the full knowledge our economy is not sustainable. My advice is do what you can to be part of the sustainable solution."

For MCC's Reimer, the gift catalogue is just an entry point to a longer conversation about peace and justice.

"We acknowledge that people are giving to make themselves feel good. Our invitation is if you're going to give in this fashion, we'd like to connect with you in making a further commitment."

Got an interesting story or issue you'd like to see on these pages?

Contact me at: brenda.suderman@freepress.mb.ca

Gift alternatives

Looking for some gift-giving alternatives from faith-based groups? Check out:

* Canadian Lutheran World Relief Gifts from the Heart campaign: www.clwr.org

* Mennonite Central Committee Giving Catalogue: www.mcc.org

* World Vision Canada: www.worldvision.ca

* MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) Invest in Change: www.meda.org

Several denominations also have gift catalogues:

* Christian Reform Church: www.crcna.org/

* Evangelical Lutheran Church www.elca.org/goodgifts/ or their Canadian counterpart, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, which welcomes gifts for its Global Hunger and Development Fund, www.elcic.ca

* Leprosy Mission of Canada Catalogue with a Purpose: www.leprosyshop.ca (under gifts of care)

* Mennonite Church Canada Give a Gift for Peace: www.healingandhope.ca

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