Is it okay to shop the clearance racks for charity?

The answer might surprise you.

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You’ve just finished work and looked at your electronic calendar for the next day. “Bring Gift for Angel Tree,” it reads. Oh no, you forgot about your commitment to help collect new clothing for homeless youth. You barely have 20 minutes to spare, so you run into Target and grab something warm from the clearance rack to put in a fancy gift bag. Done. Or are you?

Holiday merriment is often followed by holiday guilt as we struggle to meet our obligations and find ourselves coming up short. Whether for lack of time or lack of funds, some of us will be left with a sinking feeling that maybe those inexpensive flannel pajama pants we gave to charity didn’t come from the right place in our hearts.

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But is it really wrong to shop for cheap things when asked to donate to charity?

The pastor of one of the largest Catholic parishes in the country, Saint Matthew Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, encourages us to look at things from a different perspective.

“First of all, I wouldn’t have to buy anything if I didn’t want to do it,” said the Rev. Monsignor John J. McSweeney. “A person wants to respond with their heart, I hope, to buy a gift. The amount is not important.” He said the person who wants to donate “has a beautiful opportunity” and should take that chance to remember the birth of Jesus and reflect on the person they are buying for. He noted that some people can make a monetary sacrifice when giving a gift, while others cannot. “Before you give,” he said, “you have to make sure your own basic needs are met. That’s not selfishness. “

“With the buying of a gift, “ Monsignor McSweeney said, “your kindness actually comes forth to someone else. So the value isn’t important, it’s the spirit.”

We should listen to that gut feeling telling us we can do better.

So maybe our worries over the precise details of the gift are missing the point—it’s not value, but connection, that’s important. “The sense of that gift,” the monsignor said, echoing Pope Francis’ calls for a culture of encounter and true connection with the poor and marginalized, “maybe involves taking the time and meeting the person you are giving the gift to.”

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“That connection,” he said, “shows God’s connection to each of us. That isn’t through Wi-Fi, it isn’t through Google, it’s a face-to-face meeting. And hopefully it gives a sense of your kindness. So you can have a clear heart for yourself and hopefully make a connection.”

Remember the mantra that to give is better than to receive? Monsignor McSweeney says to keep in mind that giving isn’t one-sided, it’s reciprocal. So if the giver isn’t getting something out of it, too, don’t do it.

I take this to mean we should listen to that gut feeling telling us we can do better. Instead of the slapdash approach, we can be more thoughtful.That doesn’t mean we can’t shop where we wish for charity gifts, but we can choose our causes with care and not wait until the last minute. We can aim a little bit higher each time. Maybe we start by simply calling those in charge of charity drives to see what is most needed instead of assuming. Next, we can take our donations to shelters ourselves and invite some friends to come. Then maybe we can volunteer in person, for things like bringing meals to seniors or serving in soup kitchens.

And Monsignor pointed out that if we are concerned that our selected gift denies recipients agency over what they need or want, gift cards may be better than something we think they might need.

At this time of year, Monsignor said, “Don’t be afraid to close the door of hate in your heart and don’t be afraid to open the door of love for all,” paraphrasing from the poem “A Christmas Prayer,” widely attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson.

The rest of the stanza reads as follows:

Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings,

And teach us to be merry with clear hearts.”

May we strive to be merry with clear hearts as we seek out the best ways to be of service.

Vicki Vila
Vicki Vila
Vicki Vila is a freelance writer and editor who blogs with humor at about raising a son with Down syndrome and his two sisters, and about broader issues of disability. Formerly a New Yorker who worked as an editor for The New York Times, she now lives in the South, where she enjoys the abundance of nature.

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