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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2005 Archives > July - August 2005 > Alternative market shoppers give twice

Alternative market shoppers give twice

by Deborah White

Donating to Habitat for Humanity adds meaning to "home for the holidays" for shoppers at Arlington Heights United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
Santa Claus got an unexpected answer last year when he asked a boy what he wanted for Christmas.

“I want eye surgery for a kid in India and a bicycle for a woman in Bolivia,” the boy said.

“Don’t you want anything for yourself?”

“Grandma will get me plenty of stuff,” the child replied.

This conversation happened during one of the skits promoting the alternative gift market at First United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. For the past seven years, members of the Epiphany Sunday School Class have organized the market, which offers information about many local and international mission projects. Shoppers donate money to missions of their choice and, in exchange, receive cards to give to friends, family and co-workers that say something like, “A gift of an ox has been given to a family in your honor.”

“It’s good for the projects, the shoppers and the class because it makes us feel that we’re doing something of value at Christmas,” said Randolph Bias, one of the organizers. “I feel it’s a really good way to help people around the world and yet celebrate Christmas at the same time,” said church member Andrea Peck.

Austin First’s event is one of a growing number of alternative gift markets sponsored by churches during the Christmas season.

“People just welcome a way to get closer to the real meaning of Christmas,” said Anne Wright, missions chair at Old North United Methodist Church in Evansville, Ind. This November will be the third year for the church’s Mission Mall. It features booths representing local organizations and United Methodist missions with Advance special numbers.

“Give a goat for Christmas,” say signs at Arlington Heights United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, for the annual G.I.F.T. Shop (Gifts Inspired by Faith and Thanksgiving). Nonprofit agencies suggest gifts with prices ranging from $10 for a flock of chicks to $1,200 for a year’s worth of meals on wheels.

“We act as advocates for the agencies. It’s an opportunity for them to explain what they do to members of our congregation,” explained Barbara Nance, coordinator of the shop.

Some church leaders limit alternative gift markets to donations while others also sell crafts made by low-income artisans. Red Bird Mission in Beverly, Ky., part of the Red Bird Missionary Conference, is one agency that provides crafts to many churches to sell on a commission basis.

Shoppers at the annual Manger Marketplace at Hillcrest United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., can order crafts as well as make donations. A live nativity scene, dancers, singers and refreshments create a festive atmosphere.

Last year when Manger Marketplace shoppers “bought” an animal from Heifer International they received small foam animal figures. “This year if they buy an animal, they will get animal crackers,” said Kathryn Spry, one of the organizers.

Barbara Jobson shops at the annual Advent tent at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Va.
Leaders of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Va., developed the annual Advent tent, which includes a table for donations and Christmas trees representing five local nonprofit agencies. Paper ornaments on the trees have information about specific items needed such as clothing, toys or food. Church members then go shopping for the items, wrap them and bring them back to the church with the ornaments attached.

“We encourage them to do their Christmas shopping for others,” said Patrice Welker, leader of outreach for the church.

“It’s important to have both an option for a tangible gift you can pick up and wrap as well as the nontangible gift,” said the Rev. Greg Duncan, associate dean for student services at Duke Divinity School. In November, the school will sponsor the 17th annual alternative gift market. The project has influenced many students to start markets after graduation.

“That’s where these third-world crafts are marvelous. You can wrap them, but you’re also helping the crafts people,” said Duncan, who has also coordinated an alternative gift market for 12 years at Resurrection United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C.

“What’s really nice is that the members begin to depend on this,” he said. “They buy into the concept that we don’t have to do all this consumerism. There are ways to give gifts in the name of Christ that can make us happy and in many ways more deeply happy than a tie or a bathrobe. You realize these gifts are going to make a difference in people’s lives.”

—Deborah White, associate editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine.


Staging Your Alternative Gift Market

Organizers and supporters of local church alternative gift markets offer these tips:

• Start planning no later than August.

• Ask your church’s mission committee what agencies they support.

• Encourage mission representatives to include videos, slides, posters and photos illustrating their work, advises Alternatives for Simple Living in an article about how to organize alternative Christmas festivals.

• Have a steering committee of five people to recruit volunteers to contact agencies, make physical arrangements, decorate, oversee finances and handle publicity.

• Decide how shoppers will pay for the gifts they purchase. Many churches have each shopper write one check to the church for all of their donations. The church then sends the money to the organizations.

• Involve the children and youth in the market. Provide fun activities to keep them occupied.

• Don’t make the alternative market “some sort of guilt trip,” says the Rev. Greg Duncan of Duke Divinity School. “It doesn’t have to be an alternative gift or nothing.”


Resources for alternative gift markets

• “Partnership in Missions,” a catalog of United Methodist Advance specials, and a set of 12 Advance special alternative-giving cards. For both, call (800) 305-9857.

• Alternatives for Simple Living offers an article, “How to Organize an Alternative Christmas Community Festival,” and a booklet, “Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?” which can be customized for annual conferences. Call (800) 821-6153 or see

• Red Bird Mission in Beverly, Ky., part of the Red Bird Missionary Conference, provides craft items. Call (800) 898-2709 or see

• SERRV International markets fairly traded crafts and food from around the world. See  or call (608) 255-0440.

• Heifer International provides animals and training to families in 115 countries. See  or call (800) 422-0474.

• Ten Thousand Villages, a program of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, provides fair income to third-world artisans by marketing their crafts. See  or call (717) 859-8100.

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