I learned how to wrap presents in eighth grade religion class. Our teacher, Mrs. Jebb, showed us how to fold over the raw edges of the paper to make a clean line, how to make “paper airplane corners” with military precision. Each present we finished, we presented to her for inspection. If our corners crinkled, we forgot to fold over the edges, or used too much tape, back it went. We spent all class period learning to wrap and several days after that finishing the grand pile of presents in the corner of the classroom, right underneath the crucifix and the clock.
Every year, our church collected heaps and piles of presents for refugee families. In those days, we had a large population of newcomers from Sudan, mostly, who were just getting settled in our country. Our pastor had helped found the resettlement program that helped them find housing and jobs, learn the language and culture of their new city, and get acclimated in all the myriad ways moving from their African homeland to snowy, frigid Buffalo, N.Y. required. As children and teens, my brother and I donated our less-used toys to those shy new kids, used hairdryers to shrink-wrap drafty windows in their new apartments, and best of all, served a holiday dinner for our new friends and surrogate family. It was more than a lesson in gratitude and service; it was a way for us white, middle class kids to realize the depth and breadth of our privilege, and the importance of recognizing that not everyone grows up with the advantages we did, and how to share our wealth with dignity and friendship.
Every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, our pastor and his crew loaded up 18-passenger vans with refugee families and brought them to a nearby gymnasium we kids decorated for the occasion. We sang carols together in their languages and English before the teens strapped on aprons and gloves to serve the chow, and we all ate together at long, plastic tableclothed tables. I’ll never forget the faces lined up over those paper plates and plastic cups of Pepsi and 7-Up, the broad grins and gentle ripple of conversation that ran through the meal like a bubbling stream. For much of my childhood, those dinners were the highlight of my holiday season, and I don’t think we’ve had a more joyous group of fellow diners, before or since.
We had a lot of laughs when preparing, serving, and eating those dinners, but for most of us, it was more than a social occasion. Many of the refugees came to Buffalo with just the clothes on their backs, and even those were vastly insufficient for our snowy climate. Some of the adults had been doctors, lawyers, accountants in their home country, and were now working second shift to feed their families. Sitting and eating together, we heard their stories and shared ours, connecting with the human side of the refugee crisis. It’s easy to see pictures on the news, to hear population figures and forget that there are eyes and teeth and hearts attached to them. It’s easy to see Aleppo and feel that it’s so very far away. But it isn’t. The Refugees, victims of war and crisis, are just people. Just humans trying to make their way in the world. Just children with mommies and daddies, and all they want – like all of us want – is a home to raise them in.
My brother and I and our classmates, we learned that lesson early. We may have grown up with everything we ever needed, but we knew that was the exception to the rule. We also knew that boxing up your old toys and dropping them in a box outside Salvation Army isn’t enough. Real fellowship is sitting down with the people you’re trying to help and accepting their hospitality. It’s drinking their tea and eating their cookies, playing with their kids and listening while the adults talk politics. Because charity is hardest for those who are forced to accept it, and helping them do so with as much human dignity as possible is as important as the goods themselves. We are – all of us – moments away from needing a little help ourselves. Charity can turn masturbatory, if we don’t remember that.
At the end of the meal, we all gathered ’round Santa Claus as he distributed the presents. The looks on those little kids’ faces as they ripped into the paper – that’s a universal joy. The looks on their parents’ faces as their kids reveled in their first American Christmas alongside those of us who had been born here, was just as precious. During that little Christmas, their parents weren’t refugees who couldn’t give their kids the holiday they deserved. Our parents weren’t donors who were handing them largess. We were all just people gathered around the Big Man, sharing cups of cocoa and cookies and a little joy under the beautiful mantle of Christmas cheer.
That’s why Mrs. Jebb taught us to wrap those presents so carefully. We made sure the gifts were perfect, because everyone deserves that much. It was a small gesture but an important lesson. That those who are less well-off than don’t just deserve our broken toys and discarded, ill-fitting clothing, but gifts just as beautiful as we’d give our own family.
Every year, I remember that religion class as I wrap my own presents. My family and I are fortunate to be in a position of privilege and power, to have enough to give to those who don’t. And as I fold those corners and straighten the center lines, as I secure the packages with three pieces of tape – not four, not two – I think about those holiday dinners. And I’m thankful to have the means to keep myself safe and warm, but I’m cognizant that these privileges are a product as much of the color of my skin, the class in which I was raised, the quality of education I had access to because of those things. It’s too easy to assign morality to poverty, to give just to make ourselves feel better about our own position. But I learned early that I’m not better because of the figures in my bank account, that my life is not worth more because of my address. And I think that’s an important lesson to remember, as we all gather with our families and friends, or celebrate in whatever way we choose: That we’re all just people trying to make our way. If we can help each other do that, with dignity, grace, and a few laughs over a plate of turkey, so much the better.
I challenge us all to give as generously as we can, but more than that, to stay cognizant of the privilege that allows us to do so. Remember that any one of us could easily need help someday, and it doesn’t make us better than anyone else to have the privilege of being able to give. If you’re so inclined, here are a few of my favorite charities that could use your help this Christmas season (and always):
Journey’s End Refugees Services Inc.