I heard about the "White Envelope Gift" on the radio on my way home from college one year. It was a touching story about a family tradition of writing down something you had done to make the world better, sealing it in an envelope, and hanging it in the tree to be opened by the family Christmas morning. I didn't have much money, and so I proposed the "White Envelope Gift" to my brother who was still in high school. He didn't have any money for gifts either and we agreed it would be a good idea instead of trying to find something for our parents.
Our mom worked as a reading specialist in the McComb Public Schools. We knew she spent her efforts and energy trying to bring literacy to a high-poverty group of students. Our dad was a minister in town and worked on issues of poverty through his church. Charlie had the idea about taking books to the housing projects.
We scraped together what money we had and bought as many children's paperbacks as we could afford. I don't even think we wrapped them. Charlie drove us over the railroad tracks to the run-down housing facility. Everywhere we saw a group of kids hanging out in front of the apartments, I hopped out and dropped off a small stack of books. Charlie stayed in the car and kept it running. We recognized a bunch of the kids since my brother volunteered at my mom's school, and I had done a research project on reading there.
We turned a corner and a low, dark tinted, thumping car pulled up slowly next to us.
"Shit," my brother said. He kept driving and the car continued to pull up next to us. "We're going to die doing this."
"We aren't going to die. You are dramatic," I said.
"You don't live here. You don't know what this place is like." Indeed, I didn't. My family had moved to McComb after I graduated high school and I had never lived there full-time. I had no idea about the sordid race history of Pike County. I did not know that two black churches had be burned down just the year before. All I knew was that the people were kind and comfortable. I knew my family loved living there. I knew, like most of Mississippi, it was a complicated but beautiful place. Besides, I was twenty and invincible.
The car pulled up ahead of us and stopped in the middle of the road blocking our way. Charlie slammed on the breaks. The door of the car in front of us flung open and a teenaged girl hopped out laughing and pointing at us. "I knew that was you Charlie!"
My brother exhaled and rolled down the window, "Girl, you scared me to death," he said. She was a friend of his from school.
"What are you doing driving around in here. You gonna get shot up before the holidays!" she said coming over to the window leaving her door wide open in the street surrounded by crumbling brick buildings and broken windows.
"Dropping off books for my mom," he said. "This is my sister."
"Hi Sister. Y'all need to get out of here. Its getting dark. See you later Charlie." She hopped back in her car and rolled away with her music.
We gave the rest of the books away in one stop to a large bunch of kids who we knew were one of the more infamous families in McComb Public. "Merry Christmas!"
I don't remember what our parents thought about the "White Envelope Gift." I don't remember anything special about that holiday at all. I do know, that at a time when were were most concerned with how to get beer underaged, my brother and I were doing something we believed our parents thought was important. I know our mom and dad's values led us to cross tracks and reach out in our own version of trying to heal a little tear in the world. I know I felt safe because I was with my brother, even if I wasn't. And, I know I want to pass on a set of values to my kids that allows them to take risks out of love.
We started a tradition last year where my kids pick one thing to use their own money for to make the world a little better for someone else. I like Heifer International and Church World Service. This afternoon we will go ring a bell for the Salvation Army. I would love to hear what you are doing with your own kids to let them know they are powerful enough to make a difference.