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Written by Karen Giesbrecht & Simeon Pang—originally posted at

Christmastime amplifies things. Everything seems bigger and brighter as the days draw closer to the coming of the Christ and all the seasonal traditions and festivities that surround this global event. There are opportunities for creativity, generosity, closeness and sharing the love that the holidays generate.

But there are also amplified occasions for loneliness and inequality. How can a moment in history that brings such a great light into the lives of believers the world over, also be the advent for people experiencing some of the darkest times of the year? And how is this hope for love and acceptance communicated by the smallest things?

At Christmastime, sweet and spicy latte from Starbucks, in attractive red cups is one of our favourite treats. But they also symbolize something we are increasingly distressed by. Almost every week, we see our friends on the edges of poverty walk into a community meal with a disposable cup from Starbucks or other specialty coffee shop in the neighbourhood.

A few folk have likely fished the cup out of the garbage, hopefully rinsed it out, and filled it with free coffee from a local charity. Others have spent the few dollars they have on the drink, forgoing more nourishing food or other necessities. But why? Maybe because good coffee communicates status, especially at a time of year that highlights the differences between the rich and the poor. The red cup communicates:

  • I’m ok
  • I belong
  • I’m a true Vancouverite
  • I deserve an indulgence for once
  • I can pass as one of the well-off ones…

In Vancouver, in particular, we are rich in good coffee shops. And we are rich in folk who are willing to donate time, goods or money to help those in need, especially around Christmastime. To all of you who show such tangible kindness – Thank-you, thank you, thank you!

However, during this season of generosity and cheer, let us consider that sometimes the way we help can actually hurt the recipients.

Here’s how: sometimes when we give or volunteer, we do so in a manner that increases feelings of shame and inequality for the recipients who are not encouraged to do what they can for themselves, or who are not afforded opportunities to be generous themselves with what they have.

As we seek to celebrate the dignity of all those we serve & serve alongside, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Visit a community meal as a guest. Come with the openness to experience, with others, what it feels like to line up, be lost in the crowds, to eat food you may not prefer, and to be shown kindness by the volunteers, but not necessarily given a voice.
  • Find someone who does not dress like you, or who obviously came from a different place, and learn their name.
  • Offer to do some of the harder tasks at an event – like dishwashing, scrubbing pots, or taking out the compost.
  • Keep an eye out for people who are new, or who do not seem to be connecting with others.  Invite them to share simple jobs like bussing tables or keeping the coffee table stocked.
  • Collect basic hygiene items: socks, toques, gloves, underwear & backpacks, being most needed when it’s wet & cold. A drive for specific items, rather than bags filled with secondhand clothes, is more helpful.
  • For Food Safe rules, most food must be made on site – especially potentially hazardous foods that may spoil or be undercooked, like turkey & mashed potatoes. Homemade baked goods are less risky for food-borne illness & are a treat for guests, especially if they contain nutrient rich nuts & dried fruit.
  • Sponsor a community meal, or part of one: a healthy, balanced meal can cost $3-$5/person, or $450-$750 for 150 people. Adding fresh fruit for dessert is about $40; salad is $60. Fresh produce provides vitamins, minerals & fibre that is often limited in the diets of people who live in poverty.
  • Paying a community member to wash dishes for 4 hours is ~$50 (at minimum wage). Employment allows people to gain workplace skills, a sense of purpose & independence.

“I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” ~Maya Angelou