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Charity Goes Around And Comes Around

This happened maybe seven years ago and I still become flustered thinking about it. This embarrassment has faded into a general feeling of ‘what /should/ we have done’ and with the discovery of this site, I am submitting my story. My natural writing styles tends to be something near satirical so please don’t take the comments in parentheses as exact reproductions of reality.

I am the daughter in this story and I understand that at the time it was not my place to say or do anything. I am writing to ask if my mother should have done anything different, and if something like this ever happens to me again, what I should do.

My family and I had moved to a new state and regularly visited a church in a small town of about 3,000 people – you can fill in the details yourself of what that entails. We had been living in the area for about three years and were very close with the church and the people. Every year for the holidays our church did a food drive where we were asked to bring in nonperishable food and place them in boxes at the back of the sanctuary so the food may be distributed to needy families in the area. In addition, the church funded the buying for each family a turkey for Christmas week. The general feel of this was a way to do hometown missionary work and help out people who really needed it. I am not quite sure how the food was distributed, I believe there was a small group of people in the church in charge of this event and they chose the families and worked to bring the food out.

My family and I happily participated and brought in the food that had been sitting in our cupboards forever (with all appearance of not being used by us) and checked expiration dates (this was a good way to do some winnowing of the cupboards). We also picked up a few things when we were out grocery shopping. Thus we dutifully placed our contributions into the box each year and then listened as the weeks went by and the pastor kept us updated on the ‘sharing and caring’ of the food. This was a way for our family to aide needy people in the local community (and being able to remove unwanted food was also nice). We contributed each year a significant amount – two or three armfuls of food.

We did this for maybe three years, and on the fourth year is when The Incident occurred. It was holiday season again, the tree was hung, the boxes were out in the back of the church. My family packed up a cardboard box of our donations and placed the box near the others. We then continued with the general good feelings of having aided others who needed it.

The week before Christmas, we received a knock on the door. My mother opened the door and I watched as she had a quick conversation with someone outside of the door. The woman outside the door was part of our church and thrust a box at my mother, with a large, hard, round shape on top. My mother awkwardly took the box, muttered something, a thanks I believe, and then shut the door.

And this is the embarrassment: Our church had given US a box. More irony: it was the same cardboard box we’d brought to the church (the food inside was somewhat changed but still half of it was what we’d given). And the last stroke of pain: my mother had already purchased our family a turkey, so now we had two.

Our family had not been doing well financially, but we certainly didn’t feel like we were /that/ bad – to the point of necessitating missionary-esque aide. (My mother had managed to purchase a turkey on her own, thank you). I believe the general etiquette would be just to take the box, grit our teeth, and smile. It was a gift, and kindly meant. My problem with that is my belief that it showed the church we needed the box. We had already provided for ourselves. Surely another family needed it more than us – we didn’t. And now we had a giant frozen ball to stuff somehow in the freezer next to the other equally large and round one!

The rejection was further complicated because there it was one woman who had delivered the box. If we had tried to give her back the box and ask her to give it to another family (or something) that would have involved her trying to deal with the situation immediately, on her own, without assistance from the people who had chosen us in the first place. It had nothing to do with her personally that the church’s charity was unwanted. The situation was awkward enough without adding more. If we had made her take the box back it would have forced whoever ran the food drive in the church to deal with the returned box.

This was our church in a small town, so whatever action we took would be known throughout the land by Next Tuesday.

So, Etiquette Hell:
Should we have accepted the embarrassing gift, or should we have rejected it? 0319-13

It’s a gift kindly meant so you accept it graciously and then either quietly regift it to some other food bank or charity or you host a lovely dinner using the box’s contents and inviting a few elderly community members or lonely single adults away from home at the holidays.   As a Christian, you know nothing happens serendipitously but rather by direct will of God so for some reason He wanted you to have this gift from the church.    Using it to bless others in a way you had not originally intended may be one reason.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Justme December 11, 2013, 3:22 am

    You shouldn’t be embarrassed. Someone in your church knew of your familys finical struggles. As most people, they wanted to take care of their family.

  • sweetonsno December 11, 2013, 3:53 am

    Oh, wow. I can see how that would be awkward and I absolutely understand how you would be embarrassed. I think the Admin’s advice is spot-on, and acceptance was the correct response. To add to it, I would suggest that accepting the gift, which was well-meant, was an act of graciousness and generosity towards the woman who delivered it and the church members who assembled it and decided to give it to you. Sending it back would have been inconvenient at best, insulting and embarrassing at worst.

    Final thought: When your family gave, it was not out of pity for those in need, but out of love and a desire to give them joy. You weren’t judging them for needing help, but offering a simple gesture of kindness because we all need help now and then and there is no shame in that. The same is true of those who gave to you. We give not only for others, but for ourselves.

  • Rebecca December 11, 2013, 5:53 am

    I think it was someone from the church (one of the decision-makers) who wanted the OP’s family to have it. It was kindly meant, of course. I’m inclined to think I’d accept the box from the woman who delivered it, since she was only carrying out a directive from some committee leader, and then call up whomever is in charge and say, “I appreciate the thought, but there must be a mistake; we contributed to this food drive knowing there were other families who needed it more than we do. Please, I cannot accept this box as we have adequate provisions and we’d like to give it to someone who needs it more than us.”

  • Marie December 11, 2013, 6:42 am

    Wow, what a story! Personally I would probably have told the woman; “This must be a mistake, because we donated this box to the church, I’m sure they didn’t mean to send it back to us, instead of a needy family”.

    Would it have been hard for the woman who was delivering to deal with? I doubt it. She could have taken it back to the church and informed them of the mixup. It would have been a bit embarassing for her while at your mothers door, but now it was more embarassing for your entire family. The church could then have it distributed to another family, or they could give away the turkey to one of the volunteers and donate the rest of the nonperishable food at a later moment.

  • Lo December 11, 2013, 8:07 am

    Oh boy, I don’t know that I would have been as gracious as your mother. I think my reaction would have been more along the lines of, “No, you have the wrong house,” followed by, “Are you kidding me??”

    But taking the food IS the right thing to do because for the reasons you listed above, to make it the problem of the woman who graciously volunteered her service would have been unfair and probably caused hurt feelings. And a heartfelt thanks would also be appropriate, much as I’d be moritifed to give it.

    I would have notified the church as soon as it was possible, though, to see if they could take it back and give it to those truly in need. Because you wouldn’t want them thinking you needed that kind of assistance.

    I would have asked for a way to get off their charity list, making it clear that as much as you appreciate the help, if you needed some you would surely humbly ask for it.

    I support our church’s food bank but I know that they do not just give out donations to whoever they decide needs the food. Instead people can discreetly come to the church for assistance to help their families through the rough times. That’s how our serving ministries work. I can’t help but wonder if there were other people in the same situation as you if your church decided to guess who needed the food and made arrangements accordingly.

  • Niamh84 December 11, 2013, 8:37 am

    I have to disagree with admin’s advice. Actually, I don’t entirely disagree, it is good advice for what to do in that particular moment, but I certainly feel it is an incident which should be followed up on. The whole event sounds extremely badly organised, people should certainly not have this charity surprise thrust on them so close to Christmas. If needy families were informed beforehand that they’ll be given this food, they can plan accordingly. If they have no idea the food is coming, by the week before Christmas they’ll likely have done all their scrimping and saving and buying of whatever food they can already, whereas if they’re expecting it they might have been able to allocate some of the money they saved elsewhere like into their children’s presents. Imagine how many families every year end up with two turkeys?

    I would take admin’s advice above on the day and then at a later date I would approach the charity committe about the situation and suggest a new approach in which needy families are informed beforehand so they don’t spend their hard earned cash on food / turkey before finding out that a turkey has been bought for them.

  • Jewel December 11, 2013, 8:55 am

    A lot of this is going around. Here’s a similar story circulating the web about a poor family who attended a church full of wealthy parishioners. The poor family scrimped and saved for a month in order to proudly put $50 in the church collection plate for the poor. Shortly thereafter, the pastor appeared at their door with an envelope of money stating that THEY were the recipients of that collection for the poor. They received their original $50 donation back. They also received an additional $17: the sum total collected from the entire rest of that rich congregation. http://www.mikeysfunnies.com/archive/richFamily/

    I am puzzled as to why the OP’s family received the box of food without having signed up for help. I grew up in a town of 1200, so everyone knew who was in need and who wasn’t. Still, the needy had to make known to the program coordinators their willingness to receive assistance at Christmas. The coordinators were unwilling to embarrass anyone by appearing on their doorstep with donations if they hadn’t signed up for the help. This was 40 years ago. The donation program is even more tightly managed now with families needing to prove their need via copies of their tax returns, etc.

    In any event, the admin suggestions to quietly regift the food or share it with others is good advice.

  • Anonymous December 11, 2013, 9:27 am

    Yeah, I agree with Jeanne–not about the God part, but the general advice. My answer would be to take that box to a food bank in the next town over, and then have a private word with (or write a note to) the minister of the church, or whoever was in charge of the food drive, saying, basically, “Thanks for the box of food. We’d already purchased our food for Christmas dinner, so we gave the box to Other Charity. Also, a lot of the items in that box were things that our family donated in the first place. I know that the people running the food drive meant well, but we really don’t need charity. Could you please take us off the list?” If the person in charge of the food bank is the Helen Lovejoy or Mrs. Kravitz of the church, then word would get out via the church gossip mill that your family doesn’t need charity, if that’s what you’re hoping to accomplish. If you want to keep it private, then it’d probably be better to talk to the minister. However, if you’re so afraid of “whatever action you take being known throughout the land by next Tuesday,” maybe it’d be a better idea to change churches altogether, if possible. I know that that sounds crazy, but I’ve seen small towns with multiple churches, and if your family has a car, then would it be worth getting up a little earlier on Sundays to go to a larger, less-gossipy church in a different town?

  • Phoebe161 December 11, 2013, 9:34 am

    Well said, Admin. For many years, I assisted with a food drive at work for workers that needed a little extra at Christmas time. It is difficult to truly discern who really needs a food basket and who doesn’t. Although I work in a secular workplace, I remind myself over and over that God will provide and God will take care of any problems; I just need to be faithful and graceful, adjust my attitude, and do the work.

  • Whodunit December 11, 2013, 9:49 am

    Only the best of intentions were meant here, and just like any gift you get that you don’t need, you are gracious and kind. Church people look to take care of their own first at Xmas, and apparently that seemed to be you this year, even if it wasn’t really. Also, some of these “clean out your cabinet” kinds of aid get far more donations than anyone knows what to do with sometimes and pretty soon people are just doing anything to get rid of it( don’t ask me how I know) 🙂

  • Wild Irish Rose December 11, 2013, 9:56 am

    While I don’t really have a problem with charity or charitable acts, one thing I do strongly object to is the self-congratulatory attitude of people who show up on someone’s doorstep with an unsolicited “gift” of food. This happened to us several years ago. I had confided to my pastor that my husband had lost his job, and asked him to let the elders know in case someone knew of a job for which DH might be qualified. My in-laws came to visit for Thanksgiving, and we had purchased everything we needed for dinner–we were in no way in dire straits! The day before Thanksgiving, our pastor and his wife arrived with something like SIX boxes of food. They just kept going to their car and bringing in more and more stuff. My MIL just gaped and my FIL hid in a bedroom. It was humiliating, embarrassing, and completely unwanted. We gave the food away because we really didn’t need it, but we never went back to that church. The entire time the pastor and his wife were bringing in that food, they both looked annoyed and neither one spoke a single word to us. Of course, that did nothing to make us feel better about being the “chosen poor” that year.

    There is a fine line between genuinely helping people, and doing it in a way that robs them of their self-respect. Showing up uninvited and unexpectedly with a huge “gift” of food is totally the wrong way to do it, IMHO, unless you’re a shut-in and can’t get out and really need the food–and even then, call ahead and make sure you’re not stepping on people’s toes! I still cringe over this particular occurrence and the way the pastor and his wife were so smug and self-righteous about the whole thing. In my mind, that is not Christian charity–that is prideful behavior that does nothing to help the recipient. Oh, and P.S., no one ever contacted DH about a job.

  • Allie December 11, 2013, 9:57 am

    I agree this charity sounds badly run. Our church does a similar collection, but the families and their specific needs are made known in advance so no one is unpleasantly surprised. I probably would have accepted the box, given it to another charity or someone else in need and then had a private word with the minister (if I desired discretion) or whomever was in charge of the charitable efforts.

  • Jen December 11, 2013, 10:06 am

    This exact same thing happened to my family a few years ago. We always end up with extra guests, so it didn’t go to waste (except the can of yams probably).

  • Hanna December 11, 2013, 10:23 am

    In this situation, I think the OP’s mother could have done a little bit more than smile and say thank you. Since she was a part of this charity and contributed to it herself, she could have told the woman that there must be a mistake. I gave a box of food to the church this year. Please find a needy family to give to to, that was my intent. (And yes, the lady delivering the food could have dealt with it. If not by just keeping the box and letting one of the organizers know the situation.) If it were me, that’s what I’d do. I’d be really confused and have a chat with the lady. Not because I’m embarrassed people are giving me food, how nice! But because I contributed personally to this church charity and I’d like to see my box given to a needy family, and not given back to me.

  • yokozbornak December 11, 2013, 10:37 am

    I agree with the Admin. You said your family had been struggling financially so it really seems that they wanted to bless you. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is let people. I think it’s sweet that they wanted to help your family and just as sweet that your family wanted to help others. It sounds like a really wonderful congregation of people.

  • Angel December 11, 2013, 11:03 am

    I agree with Anonymous. And I want to add that Jewel’s story–downright sad.

  • SV December 11, 2013, 11:19 am

    I am not sure how I would have reacted. I think I would have accepted the gift and then contacted whoever was in charge of the food drive at the church.

  • AMC December 11, 2013, 11:32 am

    Those in charge of the food drive had good intentions, but it sounds like their system could have used some improvement. It might have been a good odea for those choosing the families-in-need, to call ahead and make sure this was something your family wanted/needed. I agree with Admin; the best thing your mother could have done was to gratiously accept the gift.

  • Elizabeth December 11, 2013, 11:44 am

    I am with Rebecca on this: kindly giving it back, taking the high road and saying ‘there is some mistake, this isn’t needed by us but surely by someone else.’ This would remove you from their ‘list’ of who they think requires assistance. (and is there a stated method for how families are chosen?)

    No doubt that some of the awkwardness comes from receiving back some of the items that you donated – items from your cabinet cleaning. I’m don’t think a request for donations in a reason to clean out your pantry – giving what isn’t wanted and sitting around doesn’t truly merit a pat on the back for being charitable. Rather, purchase non-perishables that are of general need and interest (peanutbutter, pasta, tomato sauce, soups, etc.).

  • Harley Granny December 11, 2013, 11:48 am

    I actually agree with Admin but would have tried Rebecca’s approach 1st. I would attempt to give it back with the explanation that while we appreciated the thought, we just couldn’t accept it because other need it more.

    If the return of the food was refused, then I would take it to the closest food bank.

  • Sarah December 11, 2013, 12:05 pm

    I’m rather surprised at the general reaction to this story; to me, the utmost take-away was that the food drive organizers shouldn’t just be deciding on their own which families are poor and will be given food. It sounds like a silly way to run things that is just rife with opportunities to offend people.

    My advice to the family receiving food they don’t need would be to politely decline if possible, and if not, to pass the food along to someone who DOES need it.

  • PrincessButtercup December 11, 2013, 12:21 pm

    Smile, thank them for their thoughtfulness then gift it to someone else who needs it.

    A few years ago my Mom’s landlord decided to do something nice for her and gave her a big cooked ham. My family is Christian and doesn’t eat meats that are considered unclean in the Bible so no pig of any type. However, my mom had a good friend who often helped her out despite his own lack of funds and he wasn’t very religious so he eats anything. So my Mom thanked him for his generosity then called up her friend who ate like a king for a week!

  • just4kicks December 11, 2013, 12:29 pm

    That happened to us many years back. My husband got layed off very close to the holidays and we had three young ones at the time. A relative who was retired and worked as a security guard took it upon himself to ask people for gifts for our kids. We were very embarrassed!!! Also living in a small town then, everyone knew who we were. For months afterward, people would approach us and ask how little baby xyz liked the toy/book whatever. It made people feel good to help out, and we tried to be gracious and thankful. We were…..we were also embarrassed as all heck!!! I know exactly how OP feels.

  • Abby December 11, 2013, 12:33 pm

    “I’m rather surprised at the general reaction to this story; to me, the utmost take-away was that the food drive organizers shouldn’t just be deciding on their own which families are poor and will be given food. It sounds like a silly way to run things that is just rife with opportunities to offend people.”

    I absolutely agree. While I don’t think they had malicious intentions, it seems to me that organizing a food drive where a few people just arbitrarily decide who needs help without any input from those they are considering helping is just begging for awkward moments like this. No matter how well intentioned, giving people donations unsolicited is never a smart idea.

    That being said, I am sure handing the box back, no matter how nicely worded, would have possibly led to more encounters or gossip. I think the best action is just to donate the box to a food bank.

  • Rug Pilot December 11, 2013, 1:19 pm

    I would have asked: “and to which needy family are we supposed to deliver this stuff?”

    • admin December 11, 2013, 2:31 pm

      You win for best response.

  • June First December 11, 2013, 1:24 pm

    That’s the tricky part, isn’t it? Finding the families that are “needy”. Comments on another story discussed whether the families they donated to really “needed” the gifts at Christmas.

    I agree that the church means well, but needs better organization.
    Please don’t put the delivery person (messenger) in the middle, since they probably weren’t the one who decided you needed assistance. Since the items are all non-perishable (even the frozen turkey, if your winters are cold and you have a garage), it makes sense to graciously accept them and have a private word with the organizer a day or so later. I doubt they would skip over someone who was, say, homeless to give your family a basket.

    I also agree that the timing of the delivery is really poor. (No pun intended)
    Maybe the organizers could contact the families ahead of time and ask if they’d be interested in receiving the food. Then it wouldn’t just be a free-for-all for anyone who wanted free food. Families could also decline because they spend the holidays at a relative’s house.

  • Stacey Frith-Smith December 11, 2013, 1:25 pm

    Before handing over charitable gifts of food, clothing or money- one should first ascertain that it is WANTED. It is simple courtesy to, as my pastor would say, “take a needs survey” before barreling ahead. People are not objects in a case like that. An object- of charity, of pity, even an object of love is subordinate, right? That is what stings. Whereas in community- sharing happens more organically… and those for whom aide is proposed should be consulted ahead of time as a basic courtesy, or offered the option of a free and graceful refusal. As such- you don’t tote boxes to homes before you offer families a chance to register for help if they wish or to retrieve things that would be helpful from a collection point. Otherwise- what is a good feeling for one party is a bad memory for the other. And odds are if a complaint is voiced- someone will moralize that they SHOULD be grateful. As Admin has said- charity that is pushed, not pulled, is better. For recipients, however- there must be an opportunity to demur without feeling “bound” by custom, courtesy, or the expectations of others.

  • Dee December 11, 2013, 1:37 pm

    Unwanted food hampers at holidays are not rare here where I live; many times have I heard the complaints from the recipients regarding what the heck they are supposed to do with all the stuff they don’t need or want. I don’t donate to any of these types of charities for this reason – they don’t screen well, and often the recipients are people who are more secure, financially, than they let on. Sometimes it’s just a matter of more people donating than needing, and that creates an imbalance that has to be resolved somehow.
    I would have talked to the pastor and politely explained the lack of need of the food, without any blame or indignation in my voice, and requested that another family, one actually in need, be the recipients of the gift. Doing this could prevent this from happening to you again and/or from happening to others like you – as it probably has.
    There is nothing wrong with a pantry clean-out for donations. I give and receive these kinds of things all the time to and from my best friends – it’s called recycling and sharing, and if someone else can use it then there is no insult in the offering. None of these items is past its expiration date, of course.

  • MichelleP December 11, 2013, 1:49 pm

    Completely agree with Admin. I’m a little taken aback at the posters here who said they would have refused and been offended. The church didn’t say they thought this family was starving, they had what was most likely a surplus and thought the OP and her family would appreciate it, which they should have. I can understand being confused and perhaps a little offended, as I’m a very proud person and have a difficult time accepting help, but I’m certain that wasn’t the church’s intention.

    Similar situation: I was involved in the church that was part of my daughter’s daycare for years. I was friends with several members, in particular the manager of the daycare. Every year they had a tree with “stars” to buy presents for needy children. Every year I picked a card and bought at least one gift for a child (represented by stars) on the tree. One year I simply wasn’t able to do it. A few days before Christmas, the managers called me into the office. There was a pile of presents on the floor under the tree. They told me that they had chosen my daughter to be one of the recipients of the giving tree. I was touched and asked which presents were hers. They told me all of them. My jaw dropped to the floor and I cried I was so touched and happy. We weren’t in the direst of straits, but I certainly couldn’t afford to give my daughter the Christmas I wanted. That was the best Christmas ever, for her and for me, not because of the amount, but because they cared.

    Accept gifts and be grateful. If you don’t need them, give to those who do.

  • Kirsten December 11, 2013, 2:05 pm

    I come from a very strong community where people offer help all the time, but I have to agree with Sarah. There are ways of doing this, which this model doesn’t follow. Here, someone took it upon themselves to decide that the OP’s family needed help, yet her family had donated? And they got back half of what they’d given themselves? That’s really poorly executed.

    In her place, I would also be embarrassed. Her family had clearly not chosen to share their financial difficulties with the church. Someone took a decision without consulting them, someone who didn’t even know they’d donated. It’s kind, but it doesn’t seem to have any personal thought behind it – it’s “oh, Bob’s family are struggling, let’s give them a box” rather than bothering to find out if they needed anything, or what that might be.

    Kindly meant but not well done; the return of their own items was an extra embarrassment. I would not be grateful to have my own charitable donation returned to me.

  • Filiagape December 11, 2013, 2:19 pm

    Jewel: Seriously? Families struggling have to overcome their embarrassment to ask the church for help then must provide their confidential tax documents to the church to prove they are in need? I would starve to death first.

    Make a suggestion to thegeneralization in the future there should be a general announcement that those families in need may confidentially register with the pastor. In a time like this when there are so any in need it is a shame to waste food. This family gave this food away because they didn’t want it and didn’t need it. In my house we do not eat turkey at all, vegetarians, so if we could not regift it, the box to would have gone into the trash and another family would go without. How many other boxes were passed out to families planning to go to family for the holidays or who already had a refrigerator full of ingredients for their holiday meal?

    Perhaps the thing to do would be to graciously accept the box from the volunteer, who does not deserve to be embarrassed any more than this family did, and then contact the pastor, saying there has been a mistake. Tell him/her that your family cannot use the turkey before it goes bad and would really rather someone in need received the box insted of their throwing it away. My church has a large freezer that could hold a turkey while a new recipient was found.

  • Filiagape December 11, 2013, 2:34 pm

    My church has an annual food drive as well, but we do not decide on our own who is “needy.” The usually almost 1/2 ton of food is delivered to the local food bank, which operates year round and has a more efficient way of distributing the supplies to all locals in need. Additionally, a church family in need could do so anonymously without fearing their fellow congregants are pitying them or are aware that they are struggling.

  • Miss Raven December 11, 2013, 2:49 pm

    I agree with Sarah. My biggest issue with this whole thing is the idea that some sort of church committee is just throwing out ideas of which families they think need food, rather than taking the time to find out who is actually in need. Especially considering OP’s family was donating each year! What a poorly-run mess.

    Families end up with an unpleasant, somewhat embarrassing surprise, while other families who are genuinely hungry may receive nothing. I wouldn’t contribute to a food drive like that. Gently speaking up, in this case, would perhaps catalyze some very important changes in the process. There is no need to be ungracious, but I would not have just let this one go.

  • Powers December 11, 2013, 3:02 pm

    No such thing as serendipity? How empty an existence would that be, were there no serendipitous occurrences to stoke the imagination and make one wonder at the marvels of probability!

  • KJR December 11, 2013, 3:41 pm

    When our church collects food for families in need, the food is donated directly to the local “Community Care” that serves our town. This approach would seem to solve all of the problems discussed above.

  • Jewel December 11, 2013, 4:31 pm

    Filiagape — I’m surprised at your surprise. There are too many people these days who attempt to scam the system, so organizations need some way to identify those applicants with real need and those who are just after all they can get for free. A tax return is one of those ways to show proof of need. It’s not a foolproof method but it’s better than nothing. Generally, just an administrator or a small committee held to the highest expectations of confidentiality will screen the applications for approval.

    It’s really unfortunate that these measures are necessary, but it is the reality of today’s world. Afterall, an organization who doesn’t have some method of qualifying their recipients may find that their efforts didn’t result in assisting the truly needy after all.

  • Shalamar December 11, 2013, 4:42 pm

    I’ve delivered a few hampers in my time, and one thing I learned is: CALL AHEAD. Make sure that you’ve got the right recipient and the right address, and that the time/date on which you plan to make the delivery is okay with the recipient. I always phrased it as “I represent (Blah), and we have a hamper delivery for you. When would be a good time to come by?” (My hope was that this would make it sound less like Lady Bountiful deigning to step off her throne and distribute alms among the commonfolk.)

  • DanaJ December 11, 2013, 4:53 pm

    Like Niamh84, I must disagree with Admin’s advice. The church can’t fix their organizational problems if no one is willing to step up and say there has been a mistake. At best, the committee’s poor organization is depriving the truly needy of the fellowship’s charity, and at worst, there could be abuses of the system and a lack of accountability for where resources are spent.

    In my old, low-income neighborhood, a well-intentioned but misguided church sent volunteers out randomly with brown paper bag lunches to deliver to the homeless. A well-dressed woman walked up to my neighbor, who was neither poor nor homeless, and shook a baggie at him offering a sandwich: “We’re feeding the homeless.” He started to laugh (not particularly polite, but it had really taken him by surprise and he couldn’t help himself) and said: “Lady, I’m not homeless, it’s laundry day.”

    There were several problems with their (non-existant) plan.

    1) Our neighborhood was really not safe when it came to well-dressed women in high heels approaching desperate individuals in back alleys. She was doing this alone.

    2) They were using their preconceived ideas of “what homeless people must look like” to single out their beneficiaries. D’oh!

    3) I was acquainted with a few of the homeless/near homeless in my ‘hood and they unless they are really, truly desperate, they still wouldn’t take food from strangers unless they know it’s safe. You could buy “Charlie” a meal from Subway, but he’d never accept a random brown baggie of unknown origins unless he knew you.

    After about 40 minutes, the woman only managed to give away one lunch (to another neighbor who didn’t need it, but “Hey, free lunch!”) before getting in her car to flee her embarassment.

    If her church had contacted ANY of the organizations in the neighborhood, their lunches could have been properly distributed through programs that were familiar to, and trusted by, the local homeless community and the hungry. She wouldn’t have gone alone into a potentially dangerous situation and they would have been able to reach their intended beneficiaries, rather than wasting their efforts on anyone they thought looked a little scruffy.

  • Mae December 11, 2013, 4:58 pm

    Does anyone else want to know what happened to the turkey & other food items?

  • Spike December 11, 2013, 5:45 pm

    Something similar happened to my family once. Someone left a basket full of food on our front step. We were never poor, my father ran a successful accounting practice and owned a sailboat. I guess someone thought that because we only had one, not-brand-new car, and our clothes were from thrift stores, that we must be needy. It was that kind of town. The basket was just kind of bewildering to us.

  • Leah December 11, 2013, 6:06 pm

    Sweetonsno in comment #2 said: When your family gave, it was not out of pity for those in need, but out of love and a desire to give them joy. You weren’t judging them for needing help…”

    But actually, just to be a bit devil’s advocate, there was a line in the OP that kind of turned me off: “(My mother had managed to purchase a turkey on her own, thank you).”

    It’s that “thank you,” implying an inherent insult in the act of giving the box, that kind of turned me lukewarm, and it’s also being echoed in several of the comments, i.e. the idea of being insulted by the box.

    Like I said, I’m playing devil’s advocate here – I don’t actually know how I feel about this, because yeah, I totally agree with everyone who is saying this practice of just judging who needs the box, and giving them out, can easily lead to (and probably would, in my case, lead to) the recipients feeling insulted and judged.

    I guess I just find it interesting that the OP, in that one sentence, and all of us in general feel insulted by the idea. Is it insulting to receive such charity? Is it just the fact that someone decided we needed it without our asking for it? I’m curious how others read this aspect of things.

  • Marozia December 11, 2013, 6:22 pm

    This would be the one time where I believe re-gifting would be acceptable, especially to the needier in the community.

  • Lo December 11, 2013, 8:52 pm


    Charity is a wonderful thing when properly directed. Showing up at someone’s door with food and no idea if they need it or not is definitely insulting. I want to believe people have the best intentions but the idea of someone doing that to me makes me feel ashamed. As though they think that I can’t take care of my family and therefore they need to dig into their own pockets to do it. I think it’s okay to have a sense of pride about money and one’s ability to provide for one’s own household. There’s a lot of dignity wrapped up in that.

    I wouldn’t be insulted that someone thinks I’m poor. I’d be insulted that someone would think I don’t know how to be poor and get by.

    That’s why these programs should require a compassionate and discrete way to apply for them. After all, “in need” is a relative concept.

  • hakayama December 11, 2013, 10:37 pm

    @PrincessButtercup, you state:
    “My family is Christian and doesn’t eat meats that are considered unclean in the Bible so no pig of any kind.”…

    MY family is also Christian, of one of the oldest “varieties”, as in Roman Catholic, and one of traditional Easter dishes is ham. Our equally ancient Christian Greek and Eastern Orthodox friends do not avoid pork, shrimp and lobster either. Same goes for the relatives and neighbors that belong to some of the later “vintages” of Christianity: the Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Baptists.

    Now, I cannot help but wonder what denomination do YOU speak for that seemingly makes you (and perhaps them) the voice of authority regarding ALL of Christianity?

  • Alie December 11, 2013, 10:47 pm

    I think there’s also a psychological aspect to charity that needs to be addressed. It’s easy to say from an armchair “You should be happy you got something.” but understand that for some people not being able to provide for their families can be embarrassing, and so it would be hard to be in that situation.

    That’s why you should be careful with charity and take precautions to be mindful of those you are giving to. It’s not just about waste, it’s a matter of pride. It’s why you want to be tactful about gifts. I know there was one charity my church donated to that provided assistance (but not the entire help) for poorer families to by toys for their kids. The pastor explained that the act of picking out and buying something for their kids made a difference to the parent, so the gift came from them, not a charity.

    Anyway, it’s worth thinking about. You want to treat the recipient of charity with respect and care.

  • Taragail December 11, 2013, 10:51 pm

    I don’t know why receiving a box of food would be embarassing or insulting. We give and recieve food as gifts all the time. Who hasn’t made Christmas cookies, wrapped up a dozen and given them away? And if you don’t need/like sweets, then a nice ham. We received a gift box from Omaha steaks last year; it didn’t mean the givers thought we were destitute; it meant several meals I didn’t have to make. So your mom already bought a turkey, so what? More turkey sandwiches throughout January. One more thing: you received a box from your church, that meant someone from your church was thinking about you and cared about your well-being. How many people have gone to houses of worship for years without a call, or a visit, or an invite, or barely even a hello? You took inclusion in the community of the church, and called it rejection.

  • Kimstu December 11, 2013, 11:31 pm

    All the objections here have merit, but I feel a bit sorry for the church food drive organization, which is kind of caught between a rock and a hard place.

    If they scrupulously screen potential recipients for bona fide neediness, that could become intrusive and shaming to the recipients who feel their poverty is being probed and exposed for the world to see. If they just go by vague guesswork as to who seems to be feeling the pinch, as in the OP’s story, they risk embarrassing and even offending people who don’t consider themselves needy. All the donors are trying to do is feed the hungry and comfort those in want, but it’s not as easy as it sounds!

    I agree that the OP’s mother did the right thing by graciously accepting the box and not making a fuss to the volunteer delivering it, but I also concur that it would have been a good idea to make a discreet phone call to the food drive organizers, saying that you received a charity food hamper by mistake and would like to make sure that some needy family isn’t being deprived of it. No scolding or proclaiming your self-sufficiency, just a calm assumption that you are speaking to the organizers as fellow members of the “charity donor” category rather than the “charity recipient” category.

  • Kirsten December 12, 2013, 4:03 am

    Actually, to ask another question:

    How is it charity when over half of the ‘gift’ was bought by the OP’s family themselves?

    Surely most of this ‘gift’ was just a straight return to sender?

  • Cherry91 December 12, 2013, 6:27 am

    This reminds me of a story that passed arond my family a few years ago, although I will admit it was a “this happened to a friend of a friend” tale.

    A woman had a group of her colleagues over for mince pies and mulled wine in the run up to Xmas. The group all did very similar jobs, but there was a wide range of levels of wealth in the group (eg, some were entry level workers, some had retired from other jobs but still wanted something to pass the time).

    The group are assembled in the kitchen when the final woman arrives. This woman is the wealthiest of the group due to a very successful past career. She enters the kitchen carrying a hamper as a gift for the hostess. Perfectly fine, until she felt the need to take every item out of the hamper and announce it to the group in such a way that clearly indicates she believes the hostess could never be able to afford such items and brands on her own. She especially fixates on a jar of jam, practically gushing over how she knows the hostess loves her preserves and wanted to get her something “truly special”.

    The hostess stays completely graceful, thanks the woman kindly, and takes the jar. She then turns and opens a cupboard to place it inside, and the entire kitchen sees the five jars of the exact same brand of jam already sitting inside. The woman who brought the hamper suddenly loses the need to announce every item in the hamper as if she’s presenting chunks of gold.

    Moral of both stories: everyone spends and saves differently. Don’t make assumptions about other people’s money!

  • HelenB December 12, 2013, 8:16 am

    I agree with the PPs who said that organizations shouldn’t be trying to guess which families need the assistance, and then surprising them with it. What if the family was going to be out of town for Christmas, or if they didn’t have a big enough freezer to hold a turkey? Or, like another PP, they were vegetarian?

    I like the idea of donating food to food shelves, and letting people pick for themselves what their families want. Delivering a surprise box to ‘the poor’ seems like the givers want the recipients to know exactly who they should feel grateful to.