'Tis the Season

THE CONSIDERABLE gap between Walmart’s declared corporate values and the way it actually conducts business widens even more during the holiday season.

This season, shoppers frequenting the world’s largest retailer are encouraged to select the name of a child and to purchase and donate her wished-for gift from one of the “giving trees” located in stores. Throughout the year, the company works hard to give the impression of corporate generosity, giving, for example, to food banks.

However, many of Walmart’s own employees (or, as they are referred to in Walmart-speak, “associates”) are forced to rely on these same types of programs to get by—such as Christmas gifts for their children (purchased by strangers) and groceries from food banks.

Walmart, the United States’ largest employer, employs 1.4 million Americans; that’s five times as many as IBM. Walmart manufactures the very problems that it proudly claims to alleviate, which is worse than doing nothing at all. The deception would be laughable were it not tragic. Walmart seeks praise for funding food banks and providing toys for children in need, when they are a big part of the reason people struggle to buy food and gifts in the first place.

“A lot of people I work with can’t make ends meet,” Linda Haluska, a 53-year-old mother who has worked at Walmart for nine years, told Sojourners. “[Corporate managers] talk about their appreciation for us. Why don’t they show that appreciation by paying us fairly?”

For the past three years, Haluska has been a part of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). Though the company is notoriously anti-union—Haluska spoke of being forced to view propaganda videos detailing “why union isn’t the right choice for Walmart” after corporate learned that a union organizer had been talking to workers at her store—OUR Walmart is gaining members.

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Beyond Tithing: What to Do with the Other 90 Percent

Simple living concept, Aleutie /

Simple living concept, Aleutie /

Jesus calls us to consume less and to live simply. To “live simply” in itself varies by person, situation, income, and values. While I still fantasize about becoming a new-age Laura Ingles Wilder, building a log cabin and weaving my own clothes, I have accepted that I need to interact with a consumer culture. Consuming is not a bad thing and is a necessary part of life. However, consuming becomes unhealthy when we find identity in our “stuff,” live beyond our means, or hurt others with our purchasing power.

I learned about alternative giving from a flier in my college dorm bathroom. Ithaca College and the surrounding town are notorious for progressive politics, activists, and a thriving farmers market on Cayuga Lake. Progressive politics were a part of the classroom, and I quickly learned about the often unhealthy connections between corporations, government, and the products we use. I remember feeling overwhelmed, powerless, and confused.

Why I Don’t Celebrate Valentine’s Day

I’ve done the Valentine’s Day thing in the past. And with two school-age kids, I still make the annual pilgrimage to the card and candy aisles in the grocery store to buy sufficiently benign greetings for them to hand out to every kid in their class, whether they like them or not.

But my wife, Amy, and I don’t do Valentine’s Day. In fact, we don’t even do Christmas anymore, in the way the culture tells us we should, at least. We’ve stopped buying presents, cards, and other trinkets for each other on these obligatory days, opting instead to surprise each other with gifts or other gestures of affection throughout the year.

One of my biggest objections to Valentine’s Day came from a friend recently who was commenting about the coming date. She was excited, she said, because her husband “always gets me something good.” Nothing about spending time together. Nothing about love for one another. Nothing about doing anything for him. She was excited to get something cool.

I know I’m sounding a little crusty and cynical right now, and if couples choose to observe such days with the exchange of gifts or a night out, I hope they do it joyfully and without any sense of obligation. But the “Hallmark holiday” mentality in our society has swallowed the proverbial Kool-Aid when it comes to reducing love down to a materialistic, forced transaction.

Yes, Valentine’s Day is about love, but the kind of selfless, dangerous sacrificial love it recognizes is trivialized by lacy cards and chocolates. Though there’s disagreement about which priest the day venerates exactly, the legends stretch back to the Roman rule of Claudius II, some 1,750 years ago.

A Gift of Hot Chocolate

Peter O’Toole/Shutterstock

Peter O’Toole/Shutterstock

My mom died in a nursing home five years ago this week. She spent the last 10 months of her life there following a severe stroke. Mary was buried next to her mom, Ann, at the top of a gently rising hill in a cemetery during a 13-inch snowfall in Cleveland.

There was a lot of talk about hot chocolate that day.

My mom always found ways to give something to others. Multiple sclerosis forced her to use a wheelchair, but she still figured out ways to give gifts. She took a ceramics class in her apartment building and made Christmas ornaments for family and friends. Some of them hang on our tree even now. A red-nosed reindeer that she made stands in our living room each December.

After her stroke, she was very limited. One side of her body didn’t work at all. She was bedridden those last 10 months. Still, she found a way to give. When the attendants at her nursing home came around and asked what she wanted for each meal, she ordered a packet of hot chocolate with it.

She didn’t like hot chocolate. Never drank it. But she saw an opportunity to come up with a gift. She saved the packets of hot chocolate and gave them to my sister Joanne, who has two boys. They would get the gift of hot chocolate from her.

What a remarkable gesture, eh? Even confined to a bed, she found a way to give. 

Christmas Is a Commercial Holiday, Not a Sacred Holy Day, for Many

A Christmas manger scene with figurines including Jesus, Mary, Joseph, sheep and Magi. Photo courtesy Shutterstock. Via RNS.

Nine in 10 Americans will celebrate Christmas this year, but a new poll shows that increasing numbers see the holiday as more tinsel than gospel truth.

This year more than ever, Americans prefer that stores and businesses welcome them with the more generic “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” than “Merry Christmas,” according to a survey released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service.

And for one in four American adults (26 percent), Dec. 25 is simply a cultural holiday, not a religious holy day.

Give Like God -- or More Like Santa?

Sebastian Duda/Shutterstock

Do you give with no strings attached? Sebastian Duda/Shutterstock

Have you ever given someone a gift knowing that person probably wasn’t going to keep it? You had no idea what to give, so you gave something — a sweater, let’s say, even though you knew the recipient had more than enough sweaters — along with a gift return receipt.

That’s kind of how God gives, isn’t it? No, no, not the sweater part. The part about giving and then letting the others choose what they’ll do with the gifts.

Isn’t that how God gives to us?

And if we’re to be like God, shouldn’t we be giving the same way?

This is a challenging question, but one that’s relevant at this season of giving. Do we give with no strings attached? Or do we give with conditions? Do we give only to those we deem worthy?

Be Ready to Be Changed

Flower growing out of crack in asphalt, Elena Elisseeva /

Flower growing out of crack in asphalt, Elena Elisseeva /

We have a group at our church that does a weekly sandwich ministry together. Though we already had a group that makes sandwiches each week for a local shelter, another team realized some folks don’t go to shelters, and that they might be missing out on a real opportunity to connect with different folks in our community if they didn’t go out to where the people are.

So now, every week, they walk the streets of downtown Portland and hand out upwards of 100 sandwiches. As they’ve met folks who live outside, they’ve identified other needs some have, such as socks, new underwear, rain gear, flashlights, and batteries. Each week, they come back with a list of needs, and each week our congregation helps fill those needs.

To me, this kind of ministry is exemplary of what missional church is about. We don’t simply wait behind the walls for people to come ask for something; we go out, meet people face-to-face and get to know them. Yes, we offer them a meal, but we also share stories, learn a bit of their history, and they come to know that there actually are flesh-and-blood people behind all those steeples and stone facades.

Kids Say the Profoundest Things

Photo: © noregt /

Photo: © noregt /

I asked a small group of second-graders what they would like to find inside their mailboxes. That was after we read a story about a goose who opened her mailbox and found a kite. I expected to hear answers of things: video games, toys or basketballs. But the first student who raised her hand looked at me with sincere, big brown eyes and said, "I'd like to find a letter from my dad."

In my classroom, my kids say the profoundest things.

As we entered the holiday season, I thought about the answer that student gave me. I thought about what other of my 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds were saying about the holiday season.

For three years, I lived and worked in a large housing project in Louisville, Ky. I was a middle-class, white graduate student, and my background clouded how I saw the people around me. But I finally began to see clearly.