This calls to mind a forgotten charity, one that is often lost in the hustle of Christmas shopping, decorating and good-will gestures. It is the charity of remembering and giving to family. While it is obviously more virtuous to give to strangers, such giving is supposed to be done after our responsibilities to family have been fulfilled.
I have pondered this issue of late, wondering if that means we are only responsible for our immediate families. Do we care for our children but try not to see the needs of our grandparents? Do we forget about our aunts and uncles whom we have not seen in years? Are nephews and nieces less important than the homeless stranger? Common sense tells us that the starving man on the street has a more urgent need than a distant relative who has food. But perhaps there are genuine needs in our family for an act of charity needs we could meet if we consider who among our extended family may be hurting.
Fewer people would need to live off state benefits such as food stamps, WIC or fuel assistance if relatives actually took care of one another. What are the barriers to doing this? We all most likely have relatives we do not necessarily like. Is this an excuse to leave their care up to state agencies? It is those persons that cause us grief that we, as Christians, need to reach out to. Even if years of anger, jealousy, or shame have caused rifts in a family, we have an obligation to help them when in need.
Do we know of some in our extended family who are having hard times, using credit cards just to pay their monthly bills, burdened by mounting medical expenses, using a food pantry or community clothes closet to make it to the end of the month? Perhaps their pride is too great to ask for assistance. Or are we using the excuse that we will hurt their pride by helping them? Are they afraid to ask for help because they fear taking on another repayment obligation? Can we ease such fears by making it clear that we expect no repayment?
It is sad to think that some relatives are too blind to notice the poverty of their own. I remember last year just around Christmas, I heard about someone who was excited about a charity effort directed toward children overseas, yet all the while, in the same town, this person’s own flesh and blood were suffering from poor housing, mounting debt and empty kitchen cabinets.
Now I admit that charity within families can be tricky. There may be persons within the family who are criminals or dangerous to other members of the family. In those circumstances, prayers can be said for them and they can be referred to public assistance so as not to endanger your own household. Sometimes families break apart over invalid marriages, arguments that were never mended, or barriers of distrust and pride. Siblings might fight over one issue for 20 years and never realize how much they are hurting each other, not to mention their own children, their parents and all those associated with them. People have to walk on eggshells around their explosive tempers and during the holidays emotions can escalate. Then again it could be the very act of charity that might resolve such problems, melt the frost and ease the tensions.
Let us not forget our elders during the holidays. Many seniors love to give gifts to their family members, but have more relatives to buy for than their limited income can afford. Those who are alone may suffer not only from material want, but from spiritual or mental needs. Helping them with their own gift-giving plans, especially if it involves giving of your own time and attention to them, will be very welcome. For these seniors a weekly visit or a special event with old and seldom-seen friends may be the gift that gives the most joy.
We all want to do good toward others and we enjoy buying and giving gifts. What I am hoping is that instead of writing a check for some distant charity organization, you first consider all your relatives. Do they all have safe and adequate housing? Do they all have food to feed their children? Do they all have coats and gloves to keep them warm during the winter months? Is your granddaughter who just had the new baby able to pay her electric bill? Do you have a second house to take vacations in, while a nephew is living in his car? Do you and your family spend thousands on yearly vacations while grandparents are begging help from strangers to pay their bills?
Or maybe you don't know. Have you allowed yourself to become blind to the needs of your family?
This Christmas, send early letters before you mail your Christmas cards. Ask and see how your relatives are doing. Find out if the children have boots, see if your aunt needs a warm blanket or a gift certificate to her local grocery store. If we all took care of our own, there would be less need to burden the state and selfishness would lessen. Sometimes Christ is right in front of us, while we are looking around to the right and left.
Susan C. Stratton is a freelance writer, wife and mother in Maine. For 10 years, she ran Baby Bunny Memorial (www.babybunny.net) for parents who had lost a baby, and is currently chairperson of the Corinna Chapter of Maine Right to Life and editor of The Maine Journal.