"We swim in a sea of consumerism 365 days a year," declared Joseph Roitz, an Arkansas United Methodist.
Those choppy waters can drown consumers in debt and regret that much of our "generosity" quite honestly does not reflect the spirit of Christmas.
The antidote for many congregations is an alternative-giving fair or marketplace where shoppers discover that compassion, not consumerism, is the best way to honor the Christ-child.
Roitz explained the rationale behind the alternative-giving opportunities at Lakewood United Methodist Church, North Little Rock, Ark., where he heads communication ministries.
"First, we're working to help our congregation give of themselves by doing what they normally do, but in different ways." The prayer-shawl ministry team knits mittens and hats for children, the youth work at a compassion center and a food pantry, and the bell choir entertains at nursing homes.
"Secondly," Roitz added, "we're using signs on the jammed streets leading to a local major mall within walking distance of our church to invite the shopping public to learn how to give more and spend less."
But the congregation offers just one very important gift choice: water.
"We're 'selling' — for donations of any amount — bottles of water for people to give as gifts," Roitz said. All proceeds go to build a well in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"The person who is so hard to buy for, who seems to have everything, also has clean water they take for granted. It's the perfect way to give in a way that is meaningful, that represents what we're trying to accomplish through discipleship-and symbolically, what better helps us remember our baptism?"
Giving gifts that matter
In most instances, the church invites local, national and international organizations to set up booths to share information about and sell products related to their ministries. Some, like First United Methodist Church, San Diego, offer online buying. Shoppers select an organization or gift that fits each recipient's interests.
For example, instead of buying a wrap-able present for a carpenter, the giver donates in the recipient's name to Habitat for Humanity International to buy building supplies for a house. If a coffee-lover's name is on the Christmas list, fair-trade coffee is the answer. In developing countries, fair trade for coffee farmers means community development, health, education and environmental stewardship.
A resource for meaningful gift ideas is The Advance website, which features the Hope for Christmas catalog. The Advance is The United Methodist Church's official designated-giving program through which 100 percent of every contribution goes to the ministry the giver selects.
At some alternative-giving fairs, volunteers handcraft cards to tell recipients about the gifts given in their honor, while others provide a place where shoppers can create their own cards.
The missions committee sponsors the alternative fair at Huntington United Methodist Church, Shelton, Conn., but families and groups within the congregation host the tables.
The event is important for many reasons, believes the Rev. Timothy Hare, whose family does 90 percent of its holiday shopping at the event.
"People in dire situations all over the world . . . benefit from our fair," he said. "Shoppers have helped to feed the hungry in the U.S.; they have assisted in the process of emancipating young women from sexual slavery in Asia; they have provided disaster relief to people all over the world; they have provided refugee care, medical care and more to people who desperately need it.
"As we become more attuned to the plights (of others), we build a sense of community with people whom we will likely never meet."
First United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, Fla., has offered its alternative market for 24 years. Since its inception, the event has raised more than $800,000, and each year's total is bigger than the last.
"We have 30 non-profit organization booths in our fellowship hall and about 20 more in our card-and-craft shop, which includes items from SERRV," said Cindy Cosper. The mission of the non-profit SERRV is to eradicate poverty by providing opportunity and support to artisans and farmers worldwide.
Cosper compared the event to a love feast. "Even if you buy nothing, you get a good education from caring people."
Encouraging peace . . . ecumenically
In Riverside, Calif., First United Methodist Church is opening its doors to the interfaith community for a holiday alternative-gift fair. Now in its 29th year, the fair will include a band and a booth from a nearby synagogue and a Hindu musician, as well as Christian groups that traditionally have participated.
"We'll put the fair-trade coffee on," said Kris Lovekin, co-chair of the event, "and there will be plenty of beautiful crafts, from hand-knit sweaters to Nativity sets made of olive wood and decorative menorahs.
"This is a way for people of good conscience to buy holiday gifts for their friends and loved ones that will protect God's creation and offer a fair and respectful living to people who are struggling. It is sustainable living. It is fair and just. And it is the gift that keeps on giving. Plus, the fair itself . . . creates a fellowship that encourages peace.
"We enlarged the circle this year to include more faiths," she explained, "because the season of gifts is a universal experience. It benefits us all to fellowship with people of all faiths, respecting their traditions, and with no expectations for them to believe any particular thing."
Wesley United Methodist Church, Bloomington, Ill., is trying an alternative Christmas market for the first time.
Bettie W. Story of the missions committee encouraged the congregation to "spread joy to people in this community and around the world through local and global organizations of your choice."
She offered two of many examples.
"Your swarm of honeybees will go through Heifer International to a family either in the U.S. or abroad who needs to have a source of income; your gift of $20 will purchase blood-pressure medicine for 33 patients through the (local) Community Health Care Clinic.
"How much easier could Christmas shopping be?"
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published December 10, 2010.