The Time Our Kids Were Props
I learned a valuable lesson one of our first Christmases as foster parents. A large church in Houston - the city where we lived at the time - offered an entire Christmas event just for foster families. There were bouncy houses, free food and hot chocolate, an entire room full of candy with unlimited bags to fill, and a small theatre-style room where a musical production was performed throughout the day. Of course, before everyone left, they took a turn sitting on Santa’s lap and got a free toy to take home. It was fun, and our kids enjoyed it.
There was one moment, though, that has always stayed with me. As we made our way through the large lobby area of the church with our six kids, we were met by two young, white, blonde-headed teenage girls. As they ran up to us, one knelt down by one of our brown-skinned foster sons and the other said, “Can we take your picture?”
We said, “Sure.” The girl in the picture hugged our son tight and smiled big. The other snapped a shot, and then they skipped away to another family.
GOOD DEEDS GONE BAD
Because I was a youth minister for nine years, I knew exactly where that picture was going. It would end up in a PowerPoint presentation somewhere so the church people could see their good, Christian teenagers doing something kind for the poor children in foster care. Prior to that day, that’s how I always saw pictures like that. I knew (and still know) young men and women like those two girls who took the picture. I’m sure they are good, solid girls who volunteered their time on a Saturday to help out at church. By now, they’re probably in college spending whatever scholarship money they earned by doing good deeds like the one they captured in the picture.
Until I was on the other side of that picture, though, I never fully understood what people feel when they’re on the receiving end of a church’s generosity.
In downtown Houston there’s a homeless shelter - the name of which escapes me - where I helped on a handful of occasions. The Houston Food Bank delivered truck-loads of food to this particular shelter a couple times a week, and anybody who needed food could show up with bags or boxes and take the food they needed.
One of their key policies was that people who took food also took their turn distributing it. As one of the employees told me during my orientation, “You can’t truly serve somebody until you’ve been on both sides of the table.”
That day at the big church I finally understood what she meant. I spent years taking pictures of kids at our “service projects” just like those girls did. But for the first time I experienced what it feels like to be a prop in somebody’s feel-good project. As wonderful as I’m sure those girls are, they really didn’t care about us as a family. They didn’t learn a thing about our kids. They made no connection.
But they got their picture.
GIVE BECAUSE GIVING IS GOOD
If you and your church or organization are doing good things for people this holiday season, that’s great! Sign up. Volunteer. Go serve people who are in need. We plan to help out when our teenagers join the youth group singing Christmas carols at a nursing home.
But maybe leave the phone in the car. Practice generosity without announcing your goodwill to the whole world. Serve like Jesus who,
“though in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.”
If you’re a ministry leader, resist the urge to take pictures at your charitable events. If you want people to know what went on, invite them to lunch and tell them about it. Don’t use the poor, the sick, the elderly, the broken, the homeless, the lonely as props for your social media campaign.
Serve because serving is right.
Give because generosity is the best way.
Feed the hungry because they’re hungry.
Clothe the poor because they’re in need.
Sit with the lonely because they need a friend.
You may not get much attention from your social media followers. In fact - brace yourself here - they may never know you did it. But a human connection will have been formed with somebody who needs it far more than you need Instagram likes or Facebook shares.
So don’t make people into props. Do good, spread love and joy and peace, and help everybody have a Happy Holidays.