For the past 15 years, on two Sundays in mid-November, the lobby of Mennonite Church of Normal transforms into a shopping area with rows of gift buying options. But rather than purchasing knickknacks or other goods, customers have the opportunity to sponsor projects from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Alternative Gifts International in honor of their loved ones.
Shoppers are invited to peruse this Alternative Gifts Fair to find projects that would appeal to people on their shopping lists. They then receive a card and insert describing the gift to give to their loved ones. “All of the gifts represent opportunities to significantly improve the lives of the people to whom they go,” said Meredith Schroeer, one of the forces behind the fair. “They are gifts of hope.”
All of the gifts represent opportunities to significantly improve the lives of the people to whom they go. They are gifts of hope."
- Meredith Schroeer
Families from the congregation are invited to select a project from one of the catalogs and develop a booth to showcase that project. According to Schroeer, the booths are the heart of the fair with creative displays drawing in gift givers.
Last year, Spring Neely developed a booth highlighting an MCC beekeeping project in Iraq with her children, ages 7 and 10. “My hope is that my kids learn that it’s up to us to intentionally share Christ’s love and that in the process they learn the true spirit of Christmas through blessing others,” reflected Neely. “It’s an opportunity for our family to work together, bless and give hope to others and joyfully share Christ’s love with an organization that does amazing work around the world.”
My hope is that my kids learn that it’s up to us to intentionally share Christ’s love and that in the process they learn the true spirit of Christmas through blessing others."
- Spring Neely
During the worship service on the first day of the fair, at least three generations join to lead the singing of “The 12 Days of Christmas” featuring 12 of the project gifts from the fair. The fair is open before the service, between church and Sunday School and again after Sunday School. A meal is held on the second Sunday where participants learn how much money the fair raised as they track the progress on a giant paper thermometer.
After having been on the receiving end of alternative Christmas gifts from a friend for several years, Schroeer was serving as interim pastor to St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship in 2002 and invited the fellowship to hold an Alternative Gifts Fair. Because it was so successful, when she returned to Mennonite Church of Normal as a layperson, she approached the outreach committee about holding a fair there as well in 2004.
“I felt that an alternative gifts fair offers a beautiful alternative to the commercial pressures at Christmas to spend way too much on ourselves and our families, many of whom already have all we truly need,” said Schroeer. “So many people lack things which we have long since taken for granted, like clean water and access to education.”
... An alternative gifts fair offers a beautiful alternative to the commercial pressures at Christmas to spend way too much on ourselves and our families, many of whom already have all we truly need."
- Meredith Schroeer
MCC projects now account for almost two-thirds of the funds raised through the fair. Shopping lists for both adults and children add to the excitement of the fair. The fair has grown from year to year, almost always surpassing the previous year’s totals. In 2018, the fair raised over $20,000.
Roelie Homan and Schroeer worked together as co-coordinators for the first 13 years before handing over the reins to Abby Warfels and Sophie Charles Dick two years ago. When both the Warfels and Dick families moved out of state, Amy Reiman and Erin Ponnou-Delaffon took over co-coordinating the fair for 2019. While coordinating can be a bit of work, both Schroeer and Homan point to the joy they received from their continued involvement.
“It is important to us to support MCC because it enables us, in a very small way, to carry out Jesus' Commandment that we love our neighbor as ourselves,” reflects Schroeer. “I think many congregations would enjoy and be spiritually deepened from having an alternative gifts fair as part of their preparations for the birth of our Savior.”