Challenge of hard times brings out the best of us

Published in the Courier Mail 26 Dec 08

Every so often, something happens which causes you to once again become acutely aware of the incredible potential for good that resides within the human heart. This last week has provided plenty of those opportunities.

As stories of economic uncertainty swirl around us, one could almost understand if charitable activity was down. However, it seems that many Australians share an inherent desire to help out ‘the least of these’ and lend a hand to those hit by hard times.

While the demand for charitable assistance has certainly increased over the past few months, I have been encouraged at the corresponding increase in those willing to help. Having spent a good many years mobilizing volunteers at this time of year, I would even suggest that people have been more willing to lend a hand this year.

Hard times often jolt us out of complacency and remind us that we don’t find fulfillment in what we can get, but in what we can give. The news reports we are hearing have the effect of re-orientating us, and when times get tough, we pull together.

For example, over the last three weeks a steady stream of people, of all ages and situations, have been coming in to our office with arms loaded up with gifts, beautifully wrapped and chosen with love.

They have been supporting Angel tree, a charitable Christmas initiative of Prison Fellowship. Prisoners are able to suggest gifts for their children, and volunteers buy and deliver the presents to children on behalf of their incarcerated parent. The difference such an act can make both in the life of the child and their parent is significant.

Encouragingly, there has been no shortage of people helping to make a difference in the lives of others. Even if there is a little less discretionary income around, people have been more than happy to cut back in some way so they can participate. Some have taken time off work to deliver gifts. There is a very real sense of people wanting to give what they can to help others.

Christmas is the Christian celebration of a gift of Jesus Christ. However it seems to remind all of us, not just Christians, of the joy of giving. We remember again that generosity enriches not just the receiver, but also the giver. While it can happen everyday, Christmas is a focused time of generosity and giving.

In addition to Angel Tree, we have been organizing people to volunteer at a local shopping centre, helping to put the spirit back into Christmas through caroling, free gift-wrapping and random acts of giving. Again, I have been privileged to see busy people giving their time to help others.

Even those who are experiencing their own challenges have risen to the opportunity to help the community. One gracious and generous lady was made redundant, so came in to see me to do some more volunteering. She explained that helping others was better than feeling sorry for herself. She’s been gift wrapping up a storm, creating her own silver lining in dark circumstances.

One young man was given the news that his family’s long awaited holiday had to be cancelled due to ill health of a family member. Undeterred he came in and signed up for almost two whole weeks of volunteering at the local shopping centre which he had been going to be away for. This was his holiday.

A father, separated from his children this Christmas, stood beside me and spent 4 hours cutting paper to wrap gifts which were going to other children.

A lady, whose house was made inhabitable in the recent storms, signed up to participate in our community work but then got a second part-time job. Instead of cancelling her volunteer efforts, she has been doing her shift at work, and then coming straight over to volunteer.

This year I certainly saw Christmas in the decorations at shopping centres, in the presents under the tree and in the way church attendance swells at Christmas time.

However I also saw Christmas in the quiet and often unseen actions of Australians who chose to live out the values of Christmas. They gave of their finances and time to help their fellow man – a truly wise and wonderful way to live.

As American writer John Greenleaf Whittier said, “For somehow, not only at Christmas, but all the long year through, the joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.”

Christmas may be behind us now, and our thoughts are turning toward the New Year. It’s the prefect time to reaffirm our desire and intention to give joy to each other, even in small ways, each and every day.