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Three years ago I read a book by Robert Lupton which changed the way I think about helping the poor. In that book, he introduced the concept of the “dignity of exchange,” which is one of the primary lenses through which I now view compassion. Lupton suggests in this book that “people would far rather engage in legitimate exchange than be the object of another’s pity. There is something in one-way giving that erodes human dignity.” The Christmas season has reminded me again of why exchange matters.
Today, Mile High Ministries (which also runs Joshua Station) is hosting their 16th annual Christmas Store, which gives opportunities for low-income moms and dads in Denver to buy Christmas gifts for their children (at subsidized prices). Parents, as customers, are able to be providers for their children at Christmas. The real Christmas gift of this annual tradition, in my opinion, is given to these parents: Dignity. These parents are no longer needy recipients…they are bargain-hunters.
As a junior in high school, I joined with a group of my friends to purchase Christmas gifts for a low-income urban family in my hometown, Lancaster, Pennsylvania through a local urban ministry. We got the name of a family and a list of suggested gifts and we went to Walmart to pick up the items. After purchasing the items, we drove to to the house, which was in a low-income housing community in a rough section of town. The four of us, all exuberant Christian kids, then hauled the gifts from the car to the door, where we delivered them to the mother of the children, while the children looked on.
I think back to the experience often:

What would it have been like if I was one of those kids? …to see my mom receiving my future Christmas gifts from a bunch of youth I didn’t know?
How would I felt to be that mom or dad? …to have my neighbors see me receiving those gifts? …to feel as though I was incapable personally of giving my kids a great Christmas?

Compassion is important. But compassion, without thoughtful and prayerful consideration of the consequences of the actions, can be harmful. Most mothers will do whatever they need to do to provide for their kids, even if that means they have to humble themselves to allow wealthy high-school aged kids to pick up the tab for Christmas. One gift which we did not give to that mother was dignity. I am excited that Mile High Ministries, and many other wonderful organizations, have re-examined their Christmas efforts to support low-income families.
Jeff Johnsen, Executive Director at Mile High Ministries, said this as to why they began operating the Christmas Store 16 years ago. “A lot of us at Mile High Ministries saw over and over again that there was a hidden price being paid by some of the families that were served [through their traditional Christmas giveaways]. You could see it in a dad’s face. These generous gifts were also a reminder to him that he couldn’t provide for his family that year.I decided there had to be a better way…Dignity is perhaps The Christmas Store’s chief product.”