Christmas Charity Gone Bad


DD didn’t even know which Grand Rapids charity or church it was. He only knew that they brought gifts to his house every Christmas. As his mother invited the strangers delivering the toys into her house, she thanked them with many hugs and tears. Then, while the toy deliverers were present, she placed the gifts under the tree. The volunteers left the house thinking they had fulfilled the hopes and dreams of another needy family at Christmas when their generosity and kindness had actually contributed to a recurring nightmare.

For the next several days, he and his younger siblings wondered, is this the year their mother finally allowed them to open and hold onto their presents? Then, a few days before Christmas arrived, DD and his younger brothers and sisters had to face reality again. While they were sleeping, their mother gathered the Christmas presents from under the tree, unwrapped the toys, and made her way to the pawn shop, or if the store tag was present, to the retailer from where it came. Once she had the money in hand, she hastened to the drug house, where she smoked all of it on crack. The toys given to her children had become extra income to pay for her drug habit.

DD, now grown up into a man and well into his thirties, confesses that his childhood memories of Christmas have inflicted more pain than joy. As a former gang member, it’s been easier for him to wrestle through the grief and sorrow of losing several friends to the violence of the streets than to relive his childhood trauma with shattered hopes and dreams every Christmas.

Let me reassure you that most needy families in our neighborhood are not led by a crack-addicted mother or father. Yet here’s the problem. This well-intentioned charitable group had unknowingly made things worse—not because they attempted to show compassion to impoverished kids in our urban neighborhood, but because they had no real relationship with a family they were showering gifts upon. I would like to believe this tragic unintended consequence is the exception rather than the rule among churches and charities, especially around the holiday season. But I’m left to wonder.

I wonder because I know my heart and motivations, and I’ve had many conversations with other non-profit colleagues to see that they struggle, too. As the primary fundraiser for Urban Transformation Ministries (UTM), here is my temptation. The more people I can show that we’re serving or helping, the more I can impress donors, leading to more funding. So I’m lured into cutting corners to inflate the numbers, which almost always leads to less time forming relationships with those we serve. The less time UTM staff and volunteers spend cultivating these relationships, the less likely we follow the Biblical model of compassion.

In Scripture, compassion means “to suffer with.” Yet how can we “suffer-with” the poor and marginalized in our communities unless we have a real relationship with them? I can’t have a relationship with the poor unless I walk alongside them for an extended time, getting to know the ins and outs of their situation that led them to their poverty. And more often than not, it’s a hot-mess composite of structural injustices, unfortunate circumstances, and poor choices made in a stressful, survival-like environment.

These “walk-alongside” relationships are vital in helping the poor obtain the skills and resources necessary to break the poverty cycle so they can enjoy the dignity of providing for themselves and their families. These same relationships are essential as we share the hope found in Christ, which heals, liberates, and transforms the poor and oppressed.

In contrast, the Americanized warm, fuzzy version of compassion doesn’t require “suffering with” those in need, because our personal happiness often becomes a primary motivator for our giving. And If I’m honest with myself, I really want that dopamine rush I experience from giving to those less fortunate, especially during the holidays. And while there’s nothing wrong with experiencing gratifying emotions from serving and helping the poor, if I’m not careful, it can eclipse the Biblical model of compassion that is modeled and demanded in Scripture.

So, what’s the solution? Should we stop contributing to toy drives during Christmas? Is it wrong to give from a distance so needy children can enjoy Christmas? The short answer is no. However, let me suggest that we partner with charities that have baked “walk-alongside” relationships of trust within the DNA of the population they serve. The more walk-alongside, loving relationships with the poor and needy, the more likely incidents similar to DD’s story will be rare.

Joel Shaffer bio

Joel Shaffer is founder and Executive Director of Urban Transformation Ministries (UTM) and a deacon at New City Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Joel received his undergraduate degree from Michigan’s Cornerstone University. He completed his Masters in Intercultural studies at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.


This resonated with me:

This well-intentioned charitable group had unknowingly made things worse—not because they attempted to show compassion to impoverished kids in our urban neighborhood, but because they had no real relationship with a family they were showering gifts upon.

I am in a quandry. We’re a very small church. I’m bi-vocational. There are limited things we can do. I feel strongly that we must build bridges with the community, not by using outreach as Gospel bait, but by simply showing Christian love (see Lausanne Covenant, Article 5). We just don’t have the resources to do much on our own. In our area, the big thing is aid to the homeless. The West Coast is a magnet for homeless issues. We don’t have the expertise or resources to do anything about this on our own. We routinely emphasize donation drives for the local Union Gospel Mission. I’m conflicted, because we have no connection to real people, but we are helping a ministry that does have this connection and knows how to use it.

I wish we could do more, but I’m not sure how best to use the small number of people we have towards that end.

Resource suggestions would be appreciated. I’m quite lost, and need to go a different direction, but not sure where to go.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

About 3 years ago my family began to work with to provide support for at-risk families with children. We became a host family and have hosted children multiple times. One thing we appreciate about Safe is that it gets us in contact with families who would likely never set foot in our church. There are also various levels of involvement including giving material support, serving as a coach/mentor, offering respite care, and hosting children or families in need.

Safe has chapters all across the US and is expanding into new regions all the time. This has been a good fit for our family and church to show meaningful compassion to others.

The Union Gospel Mission is a good place to start. I would encourage you to reach out to one of their directors and explain your quandary. That you’d love to see connections where some people (even if its 1 or 2 people) in your church are reaching out to the homeless in community and developing relationships with them with one of their programs. I know for me, over 30 years ago, I did some volunteer work at Mel Trotter Mission in Grand Rapids and then moved on to another organization, Servants Center, while I also helped out at a small store-front church plant in urban Grand Rapids. The director of Servants Center (Don Tack) mentored me for several years and developed me as a leader. Don saw my a passion to serve and disciple the urban poor along with a strong sense for social justice and helped cultivate it. Unfortunately I also had to deal with several conservative pastors as a 20something who wrongly pegged me as a leftist radical that preached the “social gospel.” My spiritual gifts of mercy, serving, and teaching were first developed in these para-church settings and then were eventually recognized in the church body. At the age of 35, I ended up starting UTM.

Safe-Families is a really good organization and a great template for doing social ministry that is rooted in loving, caring Life-on-life relationships which can naturally lead to discipleship opportunities. But not every community has a chapter. Maybe a group of Bible believing churches in your county could come together to create a Safe-Families chapter.

WIth UTM, we are beginning a 3 year succession plan to replace me with one of the leaders that we raised up who is more gifted in managerial leadership, creating systems, etc… to become our executive director. My role will continue as a staff member of UTM, but I will be training churches to do fatherless and poverty ministries within their own contexts along with fundraising, volunteer development and leadership deveiopment within UTM. But in a year or two I will have time to come alongside churches like yours so you can design a pathway for compassionate ministries in your particular context. So feel free to use me as one of your resources.

My church has had homeless people and other needy individuals come to our offices asking for help, but we wanted to be deliberate in helping only those that truly were in need. Then one day a Salvation Army worker came to our church asking if they could rent office space. We told them that they could have free office space if they helped us vet individuals and then direct them to resources that our church would be unable to provide.

It’s been working out great for us. We’ve installed a washer and dryer in the church for homeless people to use and we have a shower in one of our restrooms that we’ve made available. We’ve set up small boxes of peanut butter, crackers, nuts, and other food stuff to tide people over until the Salvation Army can provide housing and other more permanent help for them. Since these people are coming into our church, it’s easy to set up volunteers from our church to make continuing connections with them.