“Pack shoeboxes, change lives.”
That was the take-home message at the end of last year’s promotional video for Operation Christmas Child (OCC) – a message promising high impact with a small investment. The promise is appealing. I’ve packed a few shoeboxes over the years, and I swear that something neurophysiological happens when you allow yourself to imagine that the toothbrush, soap dish, socks, notebook, pencils, and doll you’re putting into your shopping cart might change the life of a child in another part of the world. A release of endorphins, maybe.
Because a-a-a-a-a-all the good feelings.
And it’s that time of year again. National collection week for OCC is November 16-23, and my 6-year-old brought home one of the signature red and green boxes from school this week for us to fill. OCC’s goal for 2015 is to collect 11 million shoeboxes from the U.S., Australia, Finland, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Spain, and the U.K, and distribute them to needy kids in over 100 different countries around the world. It’s an astonishing logistical operation.
The purpose of this global endeavor by Samaritan’s Purse is evangelism. Through partnerships with local churches, the organization enrolls children who receive the shoeboxes in a 12-week Bible course called The Greatest Journey™. Upon completion, graduates receive a certificate, a Bible, and a cap and gown ceremony to boot. An estimated 4.7 million children have graduated from the course. If you go to the organization’s website, there is a menu of video testimonies of people describing how their lives have been transformed through this program.
Again, all the good feelings.
A couple of years ago, however, I read Toxic Charity by veteran urban missionary Robert Lupton, and I started to see my feelings in a different light. The book prompted me to do some research and begin scrutinizing all of my charity efforts. Notwithstanding the endorphins and wild popularity, there are several things about Operation Christmas Child that I currently find to be problematic:
- The shoeboxes often contain inappropriate and unusable items because: a) people in developed nations are allowed to choose items for poor children in unfamiliar cultures and contexts, and b) OCC currently has no method of designating which shoeboxes go to which countries. Boxes are indiscriminately shipped to over 100 very different locales. Craig Greenfield, founder and director of Alongsiders International, who lives and ministers in the slums of Cambodia, says, “So many times I have seen items like socks that are inappropriate for Cambodian weather and the frequent flooding of slum areas, or worthless toys and trinkets.”
- Externally introducing free goods into a community often does unintended harm to fragile developing-world economies by undermining the demand that enables survival and drives growth. Unexamined charitable efforts can end up keeping people in poverty through their very efforts to assuage it. For example, the steady influx of donated second-hand clothing into sub-Saharan Africa has led to the closure of a number of African clothing factories. Craig Greenfield explains that purchasing stationery, notebooks, and pens from the local markets in Cambodia would support the local economy there and be far preferable to shipping items from overseas. [Update, 10/26/18]: Bethany Colvin, a community developer and missionary in Zambia, described in 2017 how very unfortunate unintended consequences were playing out in Zambia with respect to the OCC boxes – namely, that local churches had to come up with $4000 USD to pay for the distribution of 5,000 OCC boxes from a central warehouse.
- It romanticizes the poor in foreign lands while creating a distorted view of what it means to love the poor. Despite the impression left by feel-good videos and exceptional stories, a shoebox of items has little power to impact the quality of life of its recipients. I became more informed about the true impact of giving when I entered into the lives and stories of poor and marginalized people in my own city of Atlanta and saw firsthand how complex, systemic, and intractable poverty can be. It gave me an appreciation for the deep, consistent investment necessary to make a difference both spiritually and physically. Learning to evaluate what my disenfranchised friends in Atlanta needed long-term became my barometer for gauging what things people in similar or more dire circumstances abroad might need. The answer always points back to personal and community development and involves creatively empowering people to become a vital part of the solution to their own hardship. I was no longer satisfied with superficial gestures.
- OCC commingles the message of the Incarnation with American consumerism and materialism, then exports the muddled result. One of the OCC promotional videos for this year opens with the voice of a young boy narrating over a montage of images alternating between white middle-class Americans doing Christmassy things like looking at lights, picking out a tree, enjoying a feast, and opening presents; and black, brown, and Asian children in the developing world looking stereotypically pitiful, collecting bundles of twigs, eating with dirty faces, and walking through rubble. At the end of this montage, we hear, “But for so many children all over the world, the joy of Christmas, the love of God… is something they have never experienced.” This logic is only accurate if we accept the false premise that in order to experience the love of God and the joy of Christmas, one has to experience an American middle-class Christmas. Yet Jesus – who was and is Christmas – is already showing his love and bringing his joy to children around the world in countless ways that don’t involve shoeboxes from America. He knows how. After all, He was poor his entire life, was a refugee in his early years, and was homeless in his final 3 years.
- The OCC-Greatest Journey™ approach is contextualized to white middle-class American cultural didactic and programmatic preferences. It’s not contextualized to communal cultures that adhere to other religions. Taking individual children through a Christian curriculum thinking they will become evangelists to their Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim families and communities sidesteps culturally significant collectivist boundaries. Using any means necessary to convert people is not a best practice. We must be holistic in how we love people groups. Coming alongside entire communities, understanding their taboos, earning their trust, and communicating gospel truths through organic relationships in which power is shared is far better.
OOC has done great things to raise awareness for the needs of impoverished children around the world. Samaritan’s Purse is a large and complex ministry, and it does some incredible work in the area of relief and development. But in the interest of being more thoughtful in the ways we love people, consider moving beyond the ‘easy gifting’ to things that will have a longer-term impact. Consider alternatives to the shoebox, like its Animals, Agriculture & Livelihoods program, or donating to ministries like Food for the Hungry (my personal favorite — 98% of their 3,000 staff worldwide are indigenous to the countries in which they operate and they’re all about empowering people to invest in their own transformation), Mission to El Salvador, Alongsiders International, World Vision, World Relief, Urban Recipe, FCS Ministries, Christian Community Development Association, International Justice Mission, Compassion International, Hope International, Heifer International, and others who are empowering needy communities and serving them holistically. If you’re already fully invested in Operation Christmas Child this year, then take this next year to consider how you can engage with the poor more deeply.
Suggested Reading (added October 5, 2018):
When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert
God and Money by John Cortines and Gregory Baumer
Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien
Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton
Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Model for Effective Personal Relationships by Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers
With Justice for All: A Strategy for Community Development by John Perkins
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller