13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about the Stuff You Give Poor Kids

This post was inspired by an article (link at the bottom) about Operation Christmas Child, by Samaritan’s Purse. I decided to expand it beyond OCC to a look at general gift donations. This is a ‘sorry, not sorry’ post. I mean, I know this is hard to hear. It is hard for me to write. I’m honestly kind of nervous to post it because I’m often afraid of American Christians. So, I’m sorry. Then again, I wrote it and I’m posting it, so I guess I’m not sorry.

When you give a gift to a child and his mother or father can’t afford to, you steal that parent’s dignity. What about, if you really must give a gift, provide a way for the actual parents to purchase that gift and give it themselves? You could subsidize local toys or candies. You could send money to another family (local or expat) in an area stricken by poverty so they could hire a poorer person and pay them well so that they could purchase gifts for their own children.

Stop making it about you. If your objection to the above suggestions is that this doesn’t expose the child receiving the gift to your generosity, you need to examine your heart. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (in 2017 we could say, don’t hashtag on Instagram what your right hand is doing). Why do you need to receive any acknowledgement, any glory, any honor? If it is truly about the poor, then make it truly about the poor and step aside. This could also be: stop making it about your kids…

There are other ways to teach your own children about generosity. I am tired of this excuse from American Christians when they are confronted with the uncomfortable reality that their charity might be damaging those they intend to serve. If you can’t think of any other way to teach your children to be generous, let me gently suggest a little creative thinking. How about being generous with a less well-off child in your child’s classroom? How about being generous with a newly arrived refugee family? And I don’t mean by simply giving them toys. I mean by inviting them into your home for dinner. Or driving them to the doctor’s office. How about being generous with siblings? How about being generous with wisdom and nuance? (Please go read Using Your Poor Kids to Teach My Rich Kids a Lesson)

Your gift might put undue future pressure on the family. One woman who received a box took the toothpaste out and didn’t want her son to have it. She said he would want it all the time, then, if he knew what it was and she couldn’t afford that. There are locally acceptable (and effective) methods for brushing teeth. How are poor families supposed to keep up this level of gifting year after year or for child after child?

Your box is not preaching the gospel message. If Jesus were Santa Claus, okay. But Jesus is not Santa Claus and his message is one of humility, poverty, sacrifice, and the cross. Not yo-yos and slinkies and candy. Do you really want the message to be: Have some M and M’s, have a pencil, have a t-shirt, have a side helping of religion? I know the argument that such and such a pastor used the boxes in this or that way. Yup, I’ve heard the stories and they are good stories, probably mostly true. But maybe the pastor could have used locally sourced toys that the parents were empowered to give with their own means.

Of course there are moving stories, I just don’t really believe them. I’m not saying the people telling the stories are lying. I’m just saying I’ve seen way too much context and have heard far too many stories shared without sufficient context, to take these stories at face value. I’ve heard stories spun and respun and re-respun, depending on who is listening and what the teller thinks they want to hear.

Kids love the gifts and ignore the message. As one person commented on my Facebook feed, kids suffer through the Jesus talk because they want the toys. What happens when someone else tries to tell them beautiful things about God, but has no toys to offer? To quote this person, “What we win them with is what we win them to.” If you want to project the idea that faith means getting toys, shoe boxes are a great way to do that. Making a kid happy is fine, just don’t pretend it is more than that. Otherwise, this is borderline scary manipulation.

Generosity is not about stuff. American Christians tend to act like what people need is more things. More toys, more shoes, more t-shirts. We limit our thinking about giving to a monetary thing, stemming from our consumer values and culture. But generosity needs to run so much deeper. Generosity is also about giving time, giving friendship, giving presence (not presents), giving dignity, giving emotional freedom, giving welcome, giving a lack of judgment, giving hope, giving trust, giving an experience, giving space.

People who aren’t in positions of power are not going to refuse you. Leaders in their communities, forward-thinkers, mightily effective people in their local context. These people are still not going to come to the behemoth that is American Christianity and say ‘no.’ It is almost impossible for those in a position of power, like Americans, to understand this. As one woman commented on my FB thread, “And although the pastor who facilitated the program (receiving shoeboxes) was one of the most forward thinking, well-educated and articulate pastors I’ve met – (ever!), he would not go to the organisation sending them, and say, “you know what, this isn’t really serving us.’ People who are not in a position of power rarely will refuse what is given to them, even it if doesn’t actually meet a need.”

Gifts can be damaging. You don’t want to hear this. Please hear it. Running team practices I’ve coached have dissolved into fist fights because American contractors passed out Gatorade, but not enough and too quickly for me to stop it. Also, they gave soccer balls to the running team. I had to confiscate the balls, pull kids off each other, cancel practice, and figure out an appropriate response to threats to rape the girls on the team because they were given something other kids weren’t. The contractors drove away just before the chaos ensued, with their iPhones full of photos and their hearts satisfied with the knowledge that they had been ‘generous.’ Thank you, thank you very much.

The things you give aren’t used for what you think they are used for. (This is not a story Samaritan’s Purse will post on their website, and it isn’t the only one of its kind): When Saddam Hussein was terrorizing the Kurds and pretty much anyone who didn’t agree with him, an American was in Baghdad meeting with the Minister of Health. The minister abruptly said “I have to go – do you want to come with me? I have to do something for our leader’s birthday.” The American goes with him. They go to a warehouse in Baghdad, and there sit piles and piles of Samaritan’s purse Christmas Shoe Boxes. The Minister of Health is supervising minions to deliver all of them to the Children’s Hospital as gifts from Uncle Saddam for his birthday….a bunch of Iraqi kids got wonderful gifts from Saddam by way of Franklin Graham at Samaritan’s Purse.

I’m asking you to be humble and teachable, I’m not asking for repentance. Sometimes when humans do something and love doing it and do it for years and later find out it might not be the best thing to have done, we are plagued by guilt. So plagued, in fact, that we refuse to admit it. The fear of being wrong or of having made a mistake, even with good intentions, is unbearable. So we press on. But let me be clear, I don’t believe it is ‘sin’ to pack a shoe box. Good grief. Everything isn’t so black and white. I just think we can do better. We all, I hope, are on a journey that will continue until we die, a journey of growth and change and learning. One of the awesome things about grace is that it exists! It is abundant and never-ending. May we never stagnate.

Please listen. Please, please, pretty please with a cherry on top, listen. I know the article criticizing Samaritan’s Purse (link below) comes off quite strong and isn’t perfect but to jump on the author’s use of the term ‘toxic charity’ as an excuse to ignore the argument is not okay. People who have experience are trying to talk about these things. People who live in areas where helping hurts are trying to talk about these things. I know it goes against the grain. We are a do-something people. People with bravado and gusto. Please listen to people who are saying something, even when it is uncomfortable for you or might suggest you change your behavior.

(a 14th thing, bonus, after reading other’s thoughts): How would you feel? Imagine someone from a different country comes into your neighborhood or your child’s school, you might not even be present. They hand out toys and cookies, nicer things than you have given your own children. Maybe iPads or video games or gift cards to Dairy Queen. Then they tell them about a different religion. Just think about how you would react.

People of faith are incredibly generous people and I am so thankful for the many ways we have been blessed by generosity, the many ways we have been challenged to be more generous ourselves – the kind of generosity that hurts, that costs something. Let’s press on together, being generous and being wise and growing in love and creativity.

Resources:

Stuffing Shoe Boxes for the World’s Poor? Maybe You Should Reconsider

Ten Alternatives to Christmas Shoe Boxes (this is a really good list)

Please, for the love, please, read this book: When Helping Hurts

 

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Dear Expat Friends

Quick link: To My Expat Friends

Yesterday I wrote what is essentially a love letter to my expatriate friends for A Life Overseas (and this totally includes online expatriate friends I have yet to meet face to face). They have scattered all over the world, some I am still in touch with and others, not so much. But all of them hold a special place in my heart and my memory. Some carried me through childbirth abroad, others through loss. Some trusted me to care for their children or pets. We rely on each other in unique ways that leave us vulnerable.

I don’t want to close myself off to all that these new, sometimes too short, friendships bring. That’s hard. With all the hello’s and the goodbye’s, it is tempting to be cold and distant. But I need these friends and I hope I can be the kind of friend I need, as well.

When I say my husband and I are arguing about packing suitcases and that my back hurts, you know what I mean. You’ve also slammed doors and said things you regret because peanut butter weighs a lot and tennis rackets don’t quite fit. Thanks for letting me vent.

You aren’t afraid of dengue fever, typhoid, or malaria. You’ve been vaccinated and have that little yellow card and your kids have the BCG scar on their upper arms. You aren’t grossed out when I mention that we deworm our entire family twice a year. Thanks for helping me feel normal, healthy even.

When I’m broken about the poverty I see and conflicted about how to respond to beggars and barely able to hold all my spiritual questions, you’ve carried it with me, and helped me process. Thank you for sharing your own messy insides…

Click here to read the rest: To My Expat Friends

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The Bookshelf: Light and Dark

Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor

Oh my. This book has been breathing life into my days over the past week. As Taylor writes about darkness, both physical and metaphorical, I paused several times to reread, to think, to gasp.

“John’s answer (John here is St. John of the Cross, who wrote The Dark Night of the Soul) is not simple but in the simplest possible terms, he says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.”

Radical Runaway by Amy and Jonathon Hollingsworth

A young radical comes back from Africa confused, disillusioned, and looking for hope.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Everything David Grann writes is gold. Gold. This is the incredible true story of one of the former richest per capita groups of people on the planet, a tribe of Native Americans, who were ruthlessly picked off one by one, sometimes by those closest to them, as people stole their fortune.

Tables in the Wilderness by Preston Yancey

A young man processes through faith struggles.

The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack

A hilarious and instructive journey through the areas that are, well, not-quite states.

Making Your Creative Mark by Eric Maisel

For anyone who fancies themselves a creator. Music, paintings, stories…Eric has tough love and insightful advice. I highlighted lines on nearly every single page.

Begin Again: Collected Poems by Grace Paley

Beautiful poetry, of course. Its Grace Paley.

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Third Culture Kids and the Book You Need

Parents of Third Culture Kids, grandparents, schools, friends, aunts and uncles, TCKs yourselves, supporting organizations…you need to read Third Culture Kids.

You need to.

The third edition came out last week, full of all the old goodness but also addresses fresh issues that TCKs face today: from interacting with technology to facing cultural complexity. There are resources for parents and educators and kids themselves.

I reread this book regularly.

Marilyn Gardner posted an essay, in response to the publication of this new edition and I highly recommend you read it here. She writes about the joys and griefs, celebrations and losses, advantages and unique challenges of life as a TCK and as a parent of TCKs.

I will also repost an oldie, by Ruth Van Reken herself, about who are Third Culture Kids but if you don’t have time to read so many essays, just go get the book: Third Culture Kids

And Marilyn’s books as well: Between Worlds and Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith

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Ruth grew up in Nigeria as a USA citizen with an American dad who was born and raised in Persia (now Iran), she raised her own children in Liberia and her first grandchild was born in Ghana.

She says, “This topic is obviously important to me. However, because the term itself often seems to lead to confusion, I thought it might be good to set a clear foundation on who and what we are or are not talking about to hopefully expedite the important discussions that will follow.”

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Who are third culture kids?

In the late 1950s, Ruth Hill Useem, originator of the third culture kid term, simply called them “children who accompany parents into another culture.” While she did not specifically say so, all those she originally studied were in another culture due to a parent’s career choice, not as immigrants or refugees. Dave Pollock later defined TCKs as those who have “spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s).” He then went on to describe them by adding “Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

This descriptive phrase seems to be part of where some confusion rests. It is absolutely true that any given TCK or by now adult TCK (ATCK) often personally incorporates various aspects of his or her life experiences into a personal world view, food preferences, or cultural expectations. That’s why many TCKs and ATCKs relate to the metaphor of “being green” that Whitni Thomas describes in her lovely poem “Colors.” There she writes how she feels both yellow and blue in her different worlds but wishes there was a place to “just be green.” Ironically, many TCKs do feel “green” when with others of like experience, as Pollock describes. This is where they don’t have to explain this desire to be both/and rather than being forced to choose an either/or identity.

Other TCKs easily understand because many feel the same way, no matter which country their passport says is “home” or which countries they have lived in. But putting various pieces of different cultures together is not the third culture itself, although it is a very common (and wrong) way many describe it.

What is the “third culture”?

If the third culture isn’t a mixing and matching of various cultural pieces, what is it? Another common misconception is that somehow it means something related to the “third world.” Or that it measures the number of countries or cultures someone has lived in. Many have said to me, “Well, I must be a third, fourth, or even fifth culture kid because I’ve lived in…” and they list the extraordinary number of places they have lived or the cultural complexities within their family structure.

Perhaps having a simple definition of the original concept of the third culture itself would be helpful. A starting point is remembering that culture is something shared, not an individualistic experience. So how does that relate? Easily! In the late 1950s, two social scientists from Michigan State University, Drs. John and Ruth Hill Useem, originally defined the third culture as a way of life shared by those who were internationally mobile because of their career such as international business, military, foreign service, or missionary work.

The Useems noted those we now call “expatriates” had left the country their passport declared as “home” (the first culture) and moved to host country (the second culture). They noted that this community formed a way of life that was common to them but was unlike either the way they would have lived in their home cultures or how the locals were living in this host land. They called this an ‘interstitial” or third culture. Those who lived in this community may not have shared nationalities or ultimately, the same host cultures but there is much they share.

Then, as now, all who live this globally mobile lifestyle for reasons related to career choices live in a world of truly cross-cultural interactions. Entire worlds and cultural mores and expectations can change overnight with one airplane ride. High mobility – personal and within the community – is the name of the game. There is some level of expected repatriation as compared to a true immigrant who plans to stay. Often there is a strong sense of identity with the sponsoring organization. In time, Dr. Ruth Hill Useem because particularly fascinated with studying the children who grew up in this particular cultural milieu and named them third culture kids or TCKs.

So why do these distinctions make a difference to anyone but a high powered academician? Because it helps us normalize the results of a globally mobile experience for all. In particular, if we understand the difference between the TCK and the third culture itself, we can see more clearly how and why the typical characteristics of the TCK profile emerge. They do not form in a vacuum.

For example, if TCKs are chronically negotiating various cultural worlds in their formative years, no wonder they often become cultural bridges in later life and careers. Interacting with others from various cultures and world views hopefully develops an understanding that there are reasons and values behind how others live and hopefully helps TCKs and ATCKs clarify the reasons they hold the values and practices they do.

On the other hand, if the normal process of identity development occurs in conjunction with how our community sees and defines us as well as our inner perceptions, we can understand why frequent changes of our cultural mirrors can complicate the process of defining “who am I, anyway?” If relationships and the normal attachments that come with them are chronically disrupted by high mobility, no wonder there are often issues of loss and grief to attend to. We can also understand the isolation some TCKs ultimately feel as it seems pointless to start one more relationship if it will only end in another separation.

Better yet, once we have understood the “why” of our common characteristics, we can figure out the “what” we need to do to help deal effectively with the challenges so the many gifts of this experience are being maximized. And then we have to see how we will do those things. That’s the stage we are at now. I call it TCK Phase 2.  All over the place, new books are coming out telling us how to do better school transition programs, how therapists can work more effectively with this population, how parents and educators can work well with adolescents TCKs. I’m sure you will be hearing from many of these emerging experts in the coming blogs.

Personally, however, the reason I feel so passionately about keeping our terms clear is so that as we understand the “why” of the TCK story, we can begin to apply some of these insights and lessons learned to others in our globalizing world who are also living and growing up cross-culturally and with high mobility for countless reasons now than simply a parent’s career choice. But I’ll save those thoughts for another blog when I can hopefully share how lessons learned in the TCK experience relate to other cross-cultural kid (CCK) childhoods as well.

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Ruth’s desire, and mine, for this series, is “the normalizing of experiences and then the empowering of TCKs and ATCKs to live life to the fullest potential.” Follow Ruth on Facebook and keep up-to-date on her writing, speaking, and other offerings of wisdom on her blog Cross Cultural Kids.

Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing updated, 2012, by Summertime Publishing

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To My Boarding School Birthday Girl

Dear Birthday Girl,

We did the whole cake, ice cream, candles, and gifts party before we left the United States. But it wasn’t really your birthday that day. On your real birthday, your sister will hand you a wrapped shoe box full of tiny gifts, each individually wrapped. Your dorm parents have a plan. The school has goofy birthday traditions. Dad and I will call you on the phone. We’ll sing the regular birthday song and our own song, the one that’s just for you.

I’m so thankful that you will be celebrated by people all over the world. I’ve seen how people at this school honor and celebrate kids when their parents are far away. I’ve seen moms Face-timing with moms on the other side of the continent during soccer games and banquets. I’ve delivered birthday packages and hugs on behalf of absent parents. You are loved by so many by being part of this particular community. It takes a tribe and you are in the best of tribes. Knowing this, reminding myself of it, is my gift to myself on your birthday.

Because, though thankful, I’m still sad. I’m learning to hold both grief and joy in the same hand, to feel both sadness and gratitude, to sit with loss and celebration.

On the real day, you will be far away from me and I won’t be able to hug you or measure your height against my own to see whether you’ve caught me yet. I won’t be able to tickle your side or run my fingers through your hair.

This is the first birthday any of you have been away from me. Your brother and sister’s birthday is in July and they are home that month. So we haven’t done this before, haven’t missed this day before, haven’t relied on other people to celebrate you.

I know you know how much I love you, how proud I am of you. You get tired of me saying it and demand specifics in ways that both flabbergast and thrill me. What, specifically, do I love about you? Why, specifically, in this moment, am I proud of you? The answers to those questions are for me and you, for another time. But I still need to say those words: love and proud, on this day.

You are our 9/11 baby, born a blessing on a day of mourning. We named you Light. We named you Gift. We named you Victory. We named you Ours. You continue to live out these names, filling them up and redefining them through the lens of your own character, talents, and personality.

You are the biggest risk I ever took, ever jumped into intentionally. I was afraid of so many things. Afraid of more than one baby again (though that was the other greatest adventure of my life). Afraid to be pregnant here. Afraid to give birth here. Afraid I wouldn’t be mom enough for all of you. Afraid of postpartum depression again. Afraid of sleepless nights and rage. Afraid of morning sickness and changes to my body. Afraid of how much love I already knew would hurricane through me as soon as we touched outside my body.

Now I think, what if we hadn’t taken that leap? What if I let fear dominate and closed myself off to all the possibilities that are you? I’m learning to acknowledge the fears and to walk through them. You’ve helped me do that.

I can’t let my fear of who I might be when I’m not with you restrict you.

All these years after that 9/11 when you were born, I’m celebrating who you are and I’m saying, go be you.

Be you, where you are. Be you, apart from me. Be you, without fear or anxiety or strings attached. Be you, with exuberance, abandon, power and delight.

Be you with your crazy laugh and your mismatched socks and your uncle’s college band t-shirt. Be you with your full body singing and no fear in sports. Be you with your love for sunrises and bird-watching and your dog-training skills. Be you with your love for creating and your loyalty and courage. Be you in all the ways I will treasure in my heart, just for me.

Happy birthday from far away. Live it wild.

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Tips for parents celebrating birthdays from far away:

  1. Celebrate when you’re together. Early or late, doesn’t matter.
  2. Send a surprise package, either in the mail or with someone else to hand deliver.
  3. Have a distance-friendly tradition, like a goofy song to sing over the phone, or a photo tradition.
  4. Ask someone who lives nearby to bring a cake or gift or to deliver pizza to their entire dorm.
  5. Tell the people around you and around the birthday person, so they can celebrate with you and with the birthday person.
  6. Schedule a phone call ahead of time.
  7. If you have a traditional meal, ask someone to make it for them on your behalf.
  8. Be thankful for the global community who loves you and your birthday person.

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Our 9/11 baby, other stories:

Back when I was a regular contributor at Babble, I wrote about my daughter’s birth on the anniversary of 9/11. I also wrote about it for the Modern Love column, read by Mireille Enos for the podcast last spring.

Podcast

Modern Love

Babble

 

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