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Alternative gift fairs support good causes

Churches support charitable organizations by sponsoring alternative gift fairs for Christmas.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Evelyn Falkowski, of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md., did most of her Christmas shopping at church this year. She stopped by the Alternative Giving Program table after services and wrote out a check for $200. For that, she got 20 notices that she will enclose in her holiday cards to family members, telling them she has donated $10 in their names to support a literacy program in Afghanistan.

“There is so much that’s needed in the world,” she said. “I much prefer to support good causes rather than just giving people things.”

For those who are reluctant to buy friends and relatives more “stuff,” there’s an alternative. Now you can donate $6 to protect an acre of coral reef off Jamaica. Or $48 to buy a flock of chickens and a henhouse for a family in Nicaragua. Or $28 to feed a mother and child for a week in Nigeria.

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations hold alternative gift fairs between Thanksgiving and Christmas, offering churchgoers the opportunity to contribute to several dozen charitable projects around the world.

Cedar Lane has had such a fair for five years. “People are very enthusiastic about it,” says Warren Thompson, a coordinator. “Last year people contributed $6,000. Personally, I feel like I’m providing a service, helping those organizations that are doing good in the world.”

Alternative Gifts International, of Wichita, Kans., is one of the organizations that makes these fairs possible. It annually researches projects and develops a list of gift possibilities that it recommends. This year it lists 35 causes, ranging from providing solar heaters for Lakota Sioux in the U.S. to counseling child soldiers in Colombia.

Some congregations provide AGI’s whole list to congregants to choose from. Cedar Lane narrowed the list to 14 and added 2 of its own projects, the UUA’s Holdeen India project (helping oppressed peoples in India gain economic and social stability) and a literacy project in Afghanistan. Purchasers make their checks out to the church, which forwards the money to AGI to distribute to the various causes. The contributions are tax-deductible.

River Road Unitarian Church, in Bethesda, Md., has had alternative gift fairs since 1999, said coordinator Jennifer Lavorel. People have opportunities on four Sundays before Christmas to support the various causes.

Lavorel noted, “People say they like having a chance to support a concrete action somewhere in the world. It’s very touching to go home on a Sunday and look at what people have chosen to support. The fairs have become a tradition with us.”

Some congregations create a special gift list with items for children to buy ranging from $1 to $10. Cedar Lane also makes the gift service available throughout the year, upon request, so people can make purchases for birthdays and other occasions.

At Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, Calif., the Alternative Gift Market raised $13,400 this year, said Joellyn McGrath, special projects administrator. The church’s social justice groups selected 12 local projects to add to AGI’s list. Contributions were almost evenly divided between global and local projects, said McGrath. “It was very successful.”

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