Note: This post was last updated on October 27, 2019
“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.Read this important first-hand account by Takwonda Semphere, a Malawi woman who grew up on the receiving end of Operation Christmas Child. Operation Christmas Child – Curated tweets by judydominick https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
- 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.
There’s no question that OCC has raised 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, Blueprint58, Presencia, International Justice Mission, Compassion International, Hope International, Heifer International, Preemptive Love, 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 more deeply and meaningfully with people not only in foreign lands but in your own neighborhood and city who are experiencing poverty.
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
The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong by Karen J. Gonzalez
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller
The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence by Gary A. Haugen
Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World by Craig Greenfield
Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle
Categories: Church/Ecclesiology, Culture/Social issues, Spiritual Formation
This is an excellent commentary. If one is looking to do good at Christmas, consider empowering locals to be able to provide their own communities with safe water, hygiene, and sanitation, foundational needs that support all other needs including hunger, the prevention of child slavery (because children are often abducted while collecting water miles from home), and literacy, especially for girls. Check out http://lifewater.org as one potential way to accomplish development that empowers and respects the dignitity of those in the developing world.
Judy, wow, thanks for your thoughtful post on this issue. Of course, we want to help…but our help sometimes makes it worse. We are blinded by our American consumerism in other countries and their cultures. I’ll never forget my first eye opening experience when a fellow seminary classmate who was also an international student, made a pointed remark about why we have adorned Christmas trees in our homes…are we tree worshippers?
I’ve been frustrated with the packing lists knowing if my box ends up in a warm climate country, there is no need for gloves or mittens.
Good luck with your daughter’s service project! You’ve given me something to think about and shift my giving to items those in their country would actually need and use!
I appreciate this author’s ability to step back and really examine from an objective perspective whether or not our acts of “charity” are having an impact. However, perhaps for the sake of attempting to be revolutionary, progressive or thought provoking, and while raising some valid questions, she seems to demonstrate a lack of understanding about the Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child programme.
Point 1: To say that OCC blindly distributes the shoeboxes without knowledge or control of content is simply untrue. For years I have volunteered as a shoebox inspector at the Samaritans purse distribution facility in my hometown of Calgary, Canada. And every single year, during the orientation, managers will say “ok, today these specific boxes we are processing are being sent to countries A, B and C. Therefore, you need to remove items X Y and Z because they are perceived as culturally insensitive or offensive.” once the culprit items are identified, they are sorted and donated to local Canadian charities. Also, to use the author’s example of the Cambodian boy with the socks, who are we to place cultural or practical perameters on individuals? How do we know that that boy isnt praying for a pair of socks for his aged grandfather, or that he would not somehow repurpose them? besides, he has many more items in his shoebox that would be of use to him.
Point 2: I agree with this concept. But we are talking about a ONE time distribution to individuals who may not otherwise afford to purchase some of the items received. Once a child receives a shoebox, there isn’t a big chance they will receive another year after year. Practically speaking, this particular program does not have the ability to have profound impact on local economies.
Point 3 Author is correct that a shoebox full of items will not induce life long change for the better in the recipient, or offer any sort of community sustainability. That is what other charities do. But that is not the goal of OCC. it’s purpose is to bring a smile to a childs face for a month, a week, a day, or one minute. I have rarely been to America, let alone Atlanta and the author is correct to address the complexity of poverty and socioeconomic systems, but we are not sending shoeboxes to Atlanta. I have been to ukraine, and my family has been to Africa many times and I can guarantee that a simple puzzle, book, ball or jump rope will be treasured for infinitely longer than if given to the poor in Atlanta, if indeed Atlanta is at all a resemblance of north American culture as a whole.
Point 4: Author is very correct that north american Christmas should not be perceived as the standard of happiness to be shared by all. I know the Canadian ads for OCC do not seem to be as manipulative as the one mentioned in the article. And yes, Jesus is showing his love through countless other ways besides a shoe box. But it is absurd to justify this as a case against the OCC program. Sorry kid, Jesus will share his love for you in other ways, so you better not receive this shoebox full of fun toys and useful items. Your life will be much better off without it. Really now?
Point 5:This is probably the best point the author makes, and I agree with the points she made in it wholeheartedly. But just to play the devils advocate, we have to ask, as flawed as the gospel delivery program is, we must question bottom lines here: 1.Number of people hearing about Jesus, and developping a lifelong relationship with him in spite of the Greatest Journey program are:???
and 2. Number of people hearing about Jesus and developing a lifelong relationship with Him through OCC if the program is scrapped? Maybe 0
I also failed to mention the OCC program brings awareness and raises funds for Samaritan’s ongoing year round projects such as water projects, disaster relief, vocational training and healthy families education projects. Operation Christmas Child is just one program out of many that Samaritan’s Purse takes on, and yet the author does not list it with the others as a viable alternative charity.
Oh, but I did. I specifically referenced the Animals, Agriculture & Livelihoods program of Samaritan’s Purse and alluded that it had other decent programs. I think the relief work that the organization does is excellent. I link to the SP website twice in the post so that readers are free to look around. This post specifically focuses on the problems inherent in OCC. We should all be willing to admit that everything is a mixed bag of good and bad. Keep and highlight the good. Improve upon or do away with the bad. We live in a fallen world, and our ministries are subject to the fall as well. Being open to criticism is the sign of a healthy organization.
I appreciate hearing counterpoints from an insider. Thank you for taking the time to address these points from your perspective. I am aware that there are designated quality control personnel involved with the process, but if what you are saying about point #1 is true, then the information on the FAQs needs to be edited to reflect this. Currently, this is what is on the website:
To your point #3, I’m not at all opposed to the concept of bringing a smile to a child’s face with a simple gift, nor do I deny that items in the boxes can bring joy. I have witnessed the impact of simple gifts overseas as well – in Russia, Nigeria, Mexico, and China. My desire is to challenge people to a deeper level of engagement with impoverished communities in general, to provoke a desire for greater understanding and more impactful giving. If we on the donor side want to elevate our service and giving to a higher level, we need to be less satisfied with what is easy. I’m actually not making a case for OCC to be shut down, but for all involved (OCC operations + donors) to envision doing things differently, better. A box of items is a box of items, but rather than overemphasize what it can do on its own, let’s also consider that the way those items are acquired can potentially contribute more to quality of life in the community at large. Find creative approaches that still allow people in developed nations to fund desirable items, but involve the locals in identifying specific items/needs that can then be purchased or traded for locally or regionally in the destination countries. If possible, allow the parents of children to get involved in the planning process. That’s empowering for them, and it builds another level of trust.
Point #4 is an argument against exporting consumerism and entitlement, not a case against kindness to or giving gifts to children.
Point #5 is a missiological point about contextualization. If The Greatest Journey program can be contextualized in each country by seasoned cross-cultural missionaries to be more effective and culturally appropriate/sensitive (instead of relying a fixed algorithmic approach that’s centrally controlled), then there is no reason it would have to be dismantled.
All of the above criticisms should be read as suggestions for improvement, perhaps overhaul (since some would be a radical in nature), not as an argument to completely do away with everything that has been built. If in the church and the course of kingdom work we all just told each other that everything was fine and dandy, then none of us would grow. So the question is – is the organization willing to hear constructive critique about the way it does things, so that it can do them better?
just two questions- do you have any really poor friends from developing countries who you have asked their opinion about this issue? And have you ever lived in a developing country (outside the the ‘aid’/missions bubble)? I have done both, which is probably why I now find programs like OCC absolutely horrifying.
Ashley, it’s worth considering that other people who have lived – and now live – in developing countries do not share your point of view. I’m not sure what your definition of “really poor” is, exactly, but I have talked with people who are poor by Western standards and they are not horrified at all. They themselves give gifts to children. It might not be universal, but it is a common cultural phenomenon to give gifts to children.
This is all a really great discussion, thank you for your reply! To clarify about the shoebox quality control discussed in point 1, the website is correct in that they cannot make special requests from donors, and they do not select specific boxes for certain countries. This would be an administrative and labour intensive nightmare! Since their mandate is to maintain the integrity of the shoeboxes, they do not remove items that would seem to not make sense (toques and gloves for Africa, for example) since these are culturally benign and would not offend (not to mention there are many countries that we would label as “hot weather” countries, but little do we know that often it can get quite cold at night or in the winter). It was never their goal to tailor make every shoe box, it is their goal to bless and to do no harm in the process. There was an example of a girl who received a very strange, odd item ( I don’t recall specifically what it was) that would not be perceived as normal to include in a box. However, this child was praying specifically for this item for years. They do know where the boxes are going, so in addition to screening for “forbidden” items listed on the brochures released to the public, they will remove items that are culturally taboo (for example, the disney character Tinkerbell is considered off limits in Muslim countries due to her lack of clothing) but only for the boxes going to that specific country. That’s where working with the local pastors comes into play, as they indeed do. As a volunteer, I can attest that the very core and spirit of this program is very big on faith, trusting God and leaning on His divine hand in every step of shoebox distribution. Could/should they be open to suggestions to grow and improve? I hope so! For some reason, God uses you and me even though we are flawed, and I know for a fact He is using OCC in spite of the areas where they fall short.
Marin, seriously, thank you for providing input here as someone committed to OCC. Your comments and anecdotes here are a welcome part of the discussion. I can appreciate the administrative impossibilities of managing 11 million boxes so specifically. With 9 developed countries participating, though, is there any attempt to divide up the destinations by global region? Do all 9 participating countries end up with boxes going everywhere, or is there an attempt at directing boxes from New Zealand, Australia, and Japan to say, Southeast Asian and Pacific Island countries, etc? It seems like it would be easier for people to buy appropriately if they could count on their box going to a tropical region that is heavily Muslim, or a tropical region period. It’s important, I feel, to emphasize that I don’t question the motives, sincerity, or godly intentions behind any of this. But as someone who has made a lot of mistakes in the ministerial trenches, I’ve learned the importance of evaluating intentions and impact separately. I may pray over every personal endeavor and pursue an initiative with great passion, love, and sincerity, but if I unintentionally do harm, I still want that to be brought to my intention so that I can repent or make corrections. It is the nature of the God we serve that He brings about great things through our feeble and messed up efforts. He literally uses everything (Balaam’s donkey). He regularly does miracles with a few fish and a few loaves of bread. But his ability to do that doesn’t mean we get a free pass to keep doing things the same way if there’s an opportunity to improve. That’s the heart of the Prayer in Psalm 139:23,24. If were always able to discern our waywardness without divine guidance, we wouldn’t have to seek his help in doing so. Acts 6 is a great example of spiritual leadership changing infrastructure and methodology in response to an oversight being brought to their attention.
I’m from Australia, and the advertising that I saw this year said that our boxes would go to Cambodia (I think, or at least a South-East Asian country). I think that there has usually been a specific part of the world that we have been told that our boxes would go to – usually closer to home.
On the subject of advertising, there was no comparison with our experience of Christmas and theirs, rather looking at previous deliveries of boxes.
Thank you, Kathryn. Good info to know about the Australian side of the operation.
This article actually makes me sad. I kept thinking “Careful, careful …” Why is our culture one of constant criticism & condescension?? Disprove the false, expose the unethical, prosecute the illegal, but don’t tear down the good … even if it isn’t your definition of “good” & lacks perfection. The Lord IS using OCC & they are striving for His glory. I may not agree with all of their “how”s, but I agree with their “why”! Christians should never be satisfied with filling a shoebox, but this article hardly makes me want to do more. If anything, it makes people want to do less. Not pack a shoebox & probably not replace that with anything else. Great, another “charity” exposed as not living up to Christ’s example. Show me one that fully is. Highlight the thing you want people to invest in … you don’t need to tear down others to do that.
Alecia, thank you for sharing how this article made you feel. I’m sorry that its effect is a negative one and that it makes you want to do less. It sounds like I’m not someone whose writing you want to follow, and that’s ok. God is good and gracious to all his children, and I’m sure that He has other people in the body whose words, approaches, and perspectives will resonate with you better and in ways that will be motivating and life giving to you. Be blessed!
I would suggest that saying “Careful, careful,” not only does not denote condescension but also is actually quite consistent with Scriptural exhortations (e.g., when Paul encourages us for us to “teach and admonish one another” and to “speak the truth in love”). This author has not approached this topic in a hostile or condescending way at all. Rather, the author has encouraged us all to consider perspectives on OCC that we might not have considered, in order to encourage us to do even better. She never proposed anything regarding perfection. This article does indeed inspire me to want to learn more about making even more appropriate gifts, and it encourages me to write to OCC, thank them for their ministry, but to also gently suggest that they might consider ways of making it better. The book of Proverbs is full of references to the value of constructive criticism. If I associate anything with our current culture, it is a devaluing of constructive critique and a fear to express an alternative opinion for fear of being accused of being mean. It can certainly be helpful to highlight ministries to invest in, (and that was indeed done in this thread, e.g., when I recommended http://lifewater.org), but recommending an alternative ministry does nothing to address the topic of potential ways in which OCC might improve. Such critique as this author offered, to me, was a fine example of Paul’s admonition to “spur one another on to love and good works.” Good intentions, in and of themselves, do not justify something as helpful.
When it comes to ministry and missions I actually disagree that our mantra is “careful careful”. Rather the history of western countries doing mission in developing countries is that of jumping in with the best of intentions and unintentionally causing offense and doing harm to the home culture. Personally I found the blog encouraged me to support some more effective programs which I intend to do so I’m sad that it had the opposite effect for you.
This is a pretty analytical critique of OCC and I would recommend that if anyone has questions on OCC or how they work, that they contact OCC directly and ask. I’m sure they would be happy to answer your questions.
While I don’t think you are being hostile in your article, it comes off as a bit over critical to me and those of us who have volunteered and understand the program.
I think that in this age, we can be extremely hyper analytical about things to the point of taking all the faith out of something. So to enlighten the conversation, I’m going to address these points not from an analytical point of view but from an EXPERIENCED point of view.
I was a volunteer for OCC in the states for several years before going on a shoebox distribution trip in Ukraine. This experience changed my life in that I was able to meet missionaries and understand the calling God had on my life. I moved to Ukraine and have been a missionary here for sixteen years. I continued to help with missions trips that distributed OCC boxes and have distributed boxes in churches, to street children, at risk children and thru NGO’s. I have done this all over Ukraine. There have been some bumps in all this but compared to many large missions organizations, I consider them unimportant since every time I’ve ever contacted OCC with issues, they were resolved immediately and with the heart of people who care deeply about this program.
1. Far from the program having inappropriate items in the boxes, they are filled with items that thrill the children. I would say most likely that everyone including the author on this thread had Christmas presents as children. Children need gifts. It is healthy for them to have toys, feel joy and receive something that is their own. I have given these shoe boxes to many orphans who do not receive gifts, much less Christmas gifts. Is this bad? Why is it bad to give children gifts?
2. I have seen way WORSE problems introduced into a community through good hearted missions folk than a simple box of toys. A box of toys is a box of toys. It is NOT hurting the community. If people are called to dig wells, build houses or whatever, then do it. We need to be faithful to what God is calling us to do.
3. I would say yes, there is some romance here, but when your heart is moved for people in another country, love comes into play because God IS love. At least my bible says that. Does God give me blessings that please me and are completely unrelated to my basic needs? Oh yes he does! He wants to give each of us these gifts and blessings…..Why should we not love children this way too? It’s an expression of his love.
4. I do not think that OCC promotes American commercialism. Again, children need toys and gifts. They are just a shoe box of gifts. I have seen FAR bigger problems with missions organizations doing long term damages in cross cultural situations than handing children a box of toys. And actually, most boxes are not passed out at Christmas time (at least in Ukraine) and are not teaching about American Christmas. They are usually presented as a gift and as an expression of God’s love to the child. Jingle bells, snowmen, and reindeer are left stateside. America has been blessed with so much. We there is nothing wrong with sharing that blessing with others less fortunate.
5. The booklet passed out is just a tract. A tract that shares the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not a middle class version of anything. It should not offend anyone unless they have a problem with the gospel.
I am not writing any of this with snarkiness…..I am just really sad that people want to tear apart and dissect this ministry and this article made me sad. The majority of boxes that I have seen passed out are used in an evangelistic manner, with churches using the boxes to invite children and their parents to participate. Christian organizations are usually passing them out to the children in their communities that they continue to work with and build relationships with. The idea that boxes are just passed out and nothing happens afterward is just not true in my experience on the receiving end.
Most importantly, I have met MANY children and parents who have told me they have put their trust in God because of the gift of one of these boxes. They understood God’s gift of love and in faith believed. I have shared the gospel with many children and adults through these boxes.
That’s good enough for me. I don’t need to analyze anything. 🙂 Blessings
Thank you, Michelle, for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience. I respect and acknowledge that good things are taking place in and through OCC. Like all things, though, especially a massive endeavor like OCC which operates in many different countries and contexts, it’s inevitably a mixed bag. No harm comes about by critically looking at things that could be improved upon, whether it’s on the donor side or the distributor side, especially if it’s meant to bring about improvement or more meaningful engagement for those open to considering it. I don’t look at it as a zero-sum game in which every critique denies or takes away from something good that is happening. Conversely, the fact that good, even great things are happening in and through the program does not negate the need to ask some hard questions. How does an organization grow if it does not respond to constructive criticism and feedback from long-term missionaries on the field? You say that OCC is very responsive to concerns, but one of the missionaries I know had a face-to-face conversation with Franklin Graham personally when he was on the field, and that didn’t result in any changes. How do we grow spiritually if there aren’t people in our lives challenging us, sharpening us, calling us out on things? I think the experience can vary widely from location to location. I’ve ministered in several different countries. Certain things work well in some contexts but not others. If someone tells me that I as a minister handled a situation poorly, the proper response is not to argue from a position of self-devotion or self-righteousness, “But I handled these other situations over here really well, so you need to give me credit for that and stop pointing out my shortcomings.” The proper response is to stop and admit, “Yes, I did. I caused harm there. What could I have done better? What can I do better from now on?”
I can’t answer for your friends’ encounter with Mr. Graham. I can only go by my experience in working with OCC which has been very good and believe me, if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be sharing my experiences with you and would not participate in their programs. It has greatly benefited the children and adults I work with and has been a wonderful evangelistic tool.
It is VERY important that ministries look at what they are doing critically. I am all for this and it is hard for organizations to do and I realize that there is not enough of this in mission. I agree with you on that. What is hard for me, is that you haven’t stated that you have have any real experiences doing ministry with OCC and are going by what other people say and you are questioning a lot of things you have not had experience with personally.
I welcome you to come over to Ukraine and experience ministry here and/or you should also volunteer at an OCC Center to pack shoeboxes. Your perspective would be enlightened quite a bit I think. 🙂
Thank you for your invitation to visit Ukraine and experience ministry there, as well as your recommendation to volunteer at an OCC Center. You have obviously had very positive experiences with both of those things, and that is entirely valid. Even if I were to do those things and experience what you’ve experienced, though, it would not invalidate my friend’s direct experience and observations in Cambodia for 15 years. The good things you’ve experienced and the deep problems he has experienced can in fact coexist. This is a very big world, and OCC is a very big operation. There is hearsay that is the stuff of rumors, but then there is direct testimony that is from a reliable source. What I’ve written reflects the latter, not the former. I’ve been to an OCC packing party and was part of a megachurch that does OCC every year. The people are lovely, the intentions are pure, and the energy is electric. Again, I don’t have a problem with people’s intentions. Neither am I arguing that OCC is corrupt or worthless. It’s not an all-or-nothing sort of thing. I have concerns about deeper issues that go beyond OCC, such as the appeal that projects characterized by white saviorism have to mainstream American evangelicals, of which I am a part. I didn’t explicitly use this term “white saviorism” in my post, but I alluded to it in points 3-5. This is a remnant of Anglo-European colonialist Christianity. At the end of the day, it’s not healthy missiology, and it stops short of true incarnational ministry. Kids are blessed by gifts, yes, but in many parts of the world, the way that gifts are delivered through OCC and other initiatives like it results in their internalizing the message, “The white people bring us gifts and messages of the white man’s god, Jesus. He is a white, gift-giving god.” The gospel gets wrapped up in all of that together. It can take years of working with people to be able to discern that such a thing has happened because they’ve been trained to say all the right things, verbalize all the right doctrines. That’s a result of particular kind of cultural contextualization. In his book, Center Church, Tim Keller has written a great section on pp.92-93 about the importance of doing intentional cultural contextualization, explaining that if we do not intentionally contextualize to the culture of those we are trying to reach, we will automatically contextualize to our own, and that always has implications that affect gospel message delivery. My friend Craig has written about this as well. One of my favorite stories of his about how he, a white man, intentionally fights against white saviorism is that when he was visiting a poor family in rural Cambodia and they asked him to pray for their sick child, he had a local 17-year-old girl pray for the child instead. That way, if the child was healed, the family would not attribute the healing to special white man powers. His whole post is here and is a worthy read. http://www.craiggreenfield.com/blog/2015/8/18/empowerment
So I think now we are getting to the heart of your article. You are saying (politely as possible and painting broadly) that OCC is a white, racist ministry that gives toys to children in an attempt to share the white man’s superior gospel to become saved like a white man.
I think it’s sad you feel that way. When gifts are distributed, how they are distributed can make a difference in whether it’s being done in a way that empowers children or is done by what I will call a 3rd culture (color doesn’t matter here) that’s giving a gift with an expectation that you must think this of us or believe what we say. Is this a possibility, yes, the world is huge and this ministry goes into many different cultures. That is why your friend should contact OCC and discuss his concerns. If he is approaching them as the problem being a white superiority problem, then yes, people may not listen. It’s kind of harsh and mean. No one likes to be told they are less because of the color of their skin. As a missionary for 16 years, (again, a lot of water under the bridge, a lot of learning and humbling so I’m only mentioning that again because it’s really different living this stuff and not just reading about thinking about it or listening to other people.) I have seen many cross cultural problems in ministry that are much more serious and need much more attention than giving a box of toys to a child and telling them about Jesus.
There is always the potential for a problem with 3rd culture ministry and how it is presented and received by the local people. This always should be thought out in the context of the local culture and how to build strong, future relationships with nationals. To have a spirit of racism or superiority is a sin, whether you are sitting there thinking about it, or if I am here acting out on it.
Jesus was Jewish and he died for all of us no matter what color we are, no matter what country or region we come from. Each culture has strength and weaknesses. The Bible is for all of us and does not need to be changed to fit into a culture. If you need me to back this up with scripture, please email me. I am assuming that you know the bible and understand it. If you have any questions, please, email me personally. My blog has my email on the “support my ministry” page. I am open to talk more so that you can get a better understanding. Thank you!
This is a nuanced discussion that is difficult to have well in this medium. Pointing out unconscious ethnocentricity and a bent toward white superiority is not the same as making an accusation of racism or an attempt to say that white people are bad. I think ethnocentrism is a universal tendency. It’s not unique to white people. All around the world, however, the ethnic groups with the most power, numbers, wealth, and influence will much more profoundly shape the landscape than those with less, whether it’s the Hans (and not the Uyghurs) in China or those of Anglo-European ancestry in N. America. The problem of ethnocentrism then becomes a structural one rather than one of individual or organizational malice or conscious belief in superiority. The structural ethnocentricity can exist without any conscious racism present. Those are large cultural forces that the church is subject to in ANY setting, which is why it’s extra important for the church to think critically about it. You have been a missionary for a long time, and that gives you street cred for sure. I trust you have many stories of poorly done cross-cultural ministry, as well as testimony of what has been done well. My whole life is cross-cultural, however, and I’ve done lay ministry for a couple of decades in vastly different settings in both the U.S. and several countries. I’m not merely an armchair writer listening to people and then creating controversial pieces. You can look through my blog and see that I’m not interested in taking pot shots or hurling accusations willy nilly. I’m a third-culture person who goes in and out of cultures on a daily basis and thinks a lot about these things, partly because of how I’be been impacted and seen others impacted up close. This is not about airing personal grievances, but about educating the church and improving the ways it does ministry.
How about you create the worlds most perfect charity! Just don’t invite us imperfect people to participate or we might foul things up. I think if you want to criticize anything you can. But, sometimes criticism just gets annoying!
Maybe giving a child in Cambodia a pair of socks seems inappropriate to you but to a child who’s never owned anything new in his life socks might just be the best thing he’s laid his eyes on.
I’ve been to Haiti. I’ve seen the relief boxes of rice, flour, and cooking oil marked “USA” on the sides. I’m sure the children really appreciate the food, but sometimes a kid just wants a toy. Even if it’s one an American deems “inappropriate” for his circumstances.
What a hostile comment! No matter what we’re doing whether it’s a profitable business venture, church or overseas ministry careful, balanced critiques should always be welcomed.
I really appreciated this article. I’m also reading your racial posts with great interest. You should finish your series asap 😉 I attended Covenant College, and many of the mission professors there point out some of the same issues with OCC that you do here, though I have not heard the “white savior complex” attached to it before. All good things to think about.
Strictly from an editorial point of view (and you’ve probably picked up on this), your analytical approach to the subject (and your strictly sticking to the subject of critiquing OCC) does create a large deflationary effect on the magical enthusiasm most of us have when thinking of gift giving, picking out gifts with care, and especially directing it in love towards our mental version of a child in physical need. [Please note, I do agree with your critiquing of the white messiah complex, as well as all the problems that come with unthinkingly giving in ways that stroke our own egos and keep us from loving others well (even if only out of ignorance).] May I offer a suggestion that future articles in this vein include more favorable mentions of what you see as good, rather than just focusing on what needs critiquing and not mentioning the nuance so much?
For example, you say “OCC is simply not up to snuff”, which I think suggests to the modern American reader that we should therefore immediately quit participating in OCC at all (after all, this is the culture with elements that recommend avoiding chocolate, clothes, shoes, groceries, and coffee that isn’t sourced ethically or sustainably, nevermind that those items are amoral). I’m just wondering if there’s a better way to say “OCC doesn’t seem to embody the love of Jesus to unreached people (who are also physically needy) as well as some other ways do” without leaving people feeling deflated and possibly icky. Possibly softening some of your blanket statements a little more (“may” instead of “often”??), and mentioning more good things OCC DOES do? Possibly structuring the article, instead of saying “Here’s why you should stop indulging in the feels and actually do something useful”, change it to more of a “OOC has done great things to raise awareness in these areas and do x, y and z, but in the interest of being thoughtful and loving people well, may I suggest moving beyond the ‘easy gifting’ to things that will have a better long term impact? Here’s why OOC might not be the end all of American Christmas missional giving….”
These are all just SUGGESTIONS from an armchair philosopher with a BA and zero experience blogging O:) Reading your article left with a distinct “AWAY WITH IT!!!” impression, while reading the comments made me think “Well, it’s probably not all bad, so this needs more thought.” Do what you will 🙂
Very helpful and constructive feedback, Sarah. You make some very good points. I’m always trying to think of ways to communicate hard things more effectively. My heart is not to tear down but to encourage growth in the church and provoke more thoughtful ministry. But you’re right that some of my phrasing and overall approach may give a different impression, particularly to those who are invested. Thank you for taking the time to point that out. The good thing is that blog posts are living documents and can be improved as people “sound back” their reception. I will incorporate some of your advice, as able, when I get a chance.
And thank you also for your interest in and encouragement about the series. I just reached a stopping point on the research and will be writing part 3 soon. I have not forgotten or abandoned the project, but a lot of time has passed since part 2 was posted.
As someone who has lived in Africa for almost 17 years, I totally agree. Thank you.
Judy, thank you for sharing your thoughts and concerns about how Samaritan’s Purse markets OCC to its donor base. For the past few years, I’ve had similar thoughts about how American Christian culture gets exported to the rest of the world, coming out of my past experience as a missionary and from observing what we do and how we do it. I hear you asking SP and OCC to be open to critiques of their methods and followup evangelism. Self-examination, individually and corporately is necessary for spiritual growth. I have 2 of those green shoeboxes and plan on filling them again this year. I also want to participate in other efforts that could be more culturally appropriate. I love the idea of gifting an animal or helping dig a well!
Digging wells and gifting animals are indeed more useful gifts, but it is important to frame them within the context of development and not relief. After a disaster, relief work is essential and helpful. In the absence of a disaster, however, relief can be toxic because it breeds dependence and does nothing to change the situation. For example., there are thousands of wells all across Africa and the globe that lie broken, often broken in less than 18 months because locals have no appreciation or understanding or (most importantly) no sense of ownership. In contrast, focusing on transformational development that empowers, educates, and also LEARNS FROM local people can result in solutions that actually last and help change lives for the better in self-sustaining ways. This is Lifewater International’s focus, as the oldest faith-based water development organization in North America. I highly recommend Dr. Bryant Meyer’s book, “Walking with the Poor” for those who wish to learn even more about truly lasting solutions. http://www.amazon.com/Walking-Poor-Principles-Transformational-Development/dp/1570759391
Thank you for this, Jeff. I was about to make the same point. 👍
You are most welcome, Judy. I have shared your post because I believe it is one of the best, most constructive pieces on this subject that I have seen.
I totally agree that the “do good” syndrome is rampant in our Western culture, and is not good. However nowhere has the author mentioned that she has ever been or seen the receiving end of OCC shoeboxes. Her arguments are based on her opinions and what she read in the book. I certainly understand and even agree in most part with her issues, but I think it is unfair since OCC boxes are not the only culprits. Having been invovled with OCC boxes for over a decade, gone on distribution trips and lived in an area where the poor received the shoeboxes, I can say that there are lives that are 100% transformed and God used the OCC shoebox as a stepping stone in that journey. God can use any of our messed up efforts for His good. When I was on a distribution trip, we went to this small village that seemed in the middle of nowhere. The church we went to was built from an old sea container. A young girl and her grandmother were the “pastors” of the church, evangelizing and teaching the whole community. The girl gave her life to Christ when she was twelve when she received her OCC shoebox. She shared Christ with her grandmother, and between the two of them have planted at least one church every year for the past twelve years and continue to be used by God to share Light to all in their small community. Twelve churches and hundreds of people actively being baptized and lives transformed. I also lived in an very closed area where we received shoeboxes over the years to distribute. Those small boxes opened doors in very closed communities. They helped build relationships between followers of the Way and those desperately seeking. It is never about the stuff…NEVER. Having worked in the OCC processing plant, I know that there are efforts to not have inappropriate and unusable items in the boxes. Yes, liquid glue has been used as soap, crayons have melted and rats eaten away at the sweets. It is not perfect! Those who are in the OCC community know that the “stuff’ passes away, put pray that seeds are planted an opportunities with existing churches int that country are born. Honestly, I do not know what is “better” but I am so glad God can use anything for building His Kingdom. To that twelve year old girl, her grandmother, the twelve church and the hundreds of new believers, it does not get any better than that. Personally, I will continue to contribute towards the OCC box because I have seen, I have witnessed, how lives and opportunities are transformed. Anything we do is imperfect, and it is GOD who makes all things good.
PS. Samaritan’s Purse also offers programs where you can purchase things like livestock, school supplies, medical supplies, dig wells for clean water, supplies for feeding programs, help those with heart operations or cleft lips, build hospitals and more. Please go to http://www.samaritanspurse.organd check under the “What we do” tab.
I have been on the sending and receiving end of OCC. Forget visiting or living 17 years in Tanzania…I mean BORN AND RAISED. The first time I saw OCC boxes distributed was at my baby brother’s school. I remember feeling infuriated, as to why, the kids in the city get the boxes, why not reach out to the middle of nowhere, Tanzania where no one really goes there unless its the one week mission trip then back to the luxury of the city-but first lets stop by the national park for a Safari…Then someone reminded me that even the kids in the city need the gesture, need the prayers of the people packing those shoe boxes-whether its from a baby christian just saying “God, I hope this works too.” or prayers from the rest of the world who have gotten there with their Christian faith.
I packed my first shoe box I was 19 in college and clearly lost. I packed that box because I knew that if I were doing it for a kid in my country they will be thrilled. I packed because the rest of the world has already taken so much from the so called third world countries that it is pathetic to even think a simple gesture like packing a shoe box is ruining local markets.
At 25 I moved back to my country to teach at an expensive missionary school, the same one that denied my 5 year old brother’s admission at a time my dad worked with a gold mining company that treated locals like crap. Every day I went home to tutor my brother who did not get the same access to a quality education as the kids of the missionaries. At work, there was ever the constant need to prove that I am qualified to teach.
If you ask me, shoe boxes are not the problem. If you want to start your own organization and do better work than what others are doing,go ahead. If you want to go teach youngins in the villages and build orphanages-good for you. The real problem is the ones that can actually do something about these “poor countries” are too occupied with criticizing those immature 19 year olds for keeping inappropriate items in the shoe boxes.
By the way, the suggested item list was beneficial-I did throw in a few childrens’ books and was in prayer(for a week) for whoever got the box I packed with my God-given adrenaline. So if prayer plus shoe box goodies was not enough, I don’t know how else I can possibly fit in today’s Christianity.
Whew! It sounds like you carry a lot of pain and anger that has been misdirected to this blog
post. This article is thoughtful, balanced and considered – offering alternative programs to support for readers who may not be aware that there are more effective ways to “do good” as well as offering some helpful critiques of ways in which occ could be improved.
Laura – I have to agree with Jenn. The comments are peppered with people’s remarks that she is responding to, about how terrible Operation Christmas Child is, and how they as residents or former residents of developing countries know about this. Maybe those people misread and misunderstood the original post too, but it at least shows it is susceptible of being read that way. Jenn is giving another point of view.
I have considered the issues raised by books like Toxic Charity, and while I agree with some of your concerns in general, I concluded for myself that they don’t apply to Operation Christmas Child.
Operation Christmas Child doesn’t import used clothing or other cheaper consumer goods in large quantity. It’s a one-time gift to children, and as such isn’t likely to engender dependence. Children, by their nature, ARE dependent. That’s part of the reason why it’s quite common among various cultures to give gifts or other things to children.
I agree there is some concern about what people sometimes send and why they are participating. But I think the answer to that for me and for you is to send good things.. Opting out won’t solve any problem created by what other people do, nor will it cause them to view anything differently. And since you know what the problems are, you can avoid them.
I also think the quotes you cite magnify small issues out of proporition. Sure, a child in Cambodia might not need socks, but most boxes aren’t filled with socks. It’s very likely the child will find some things in it that she loves and can use – and particularly in your box, since you have some insight about what kinds of things to send.
I also notice that some of the concerns the quotes focus on are contradictory, so both of them can’t be major problems at the same time. For example, it’s unlikely that unwanted and culturally inappropriate gifts are being forced on kids AND at the same time they are creating a focus on Western materialism. If the kids didn’t like what they were receiving, there would be little chance of them wanting more of it. Also, it’s hard to reconcile the concern that a shoe box gift doesn’t accomplish very much with the idea that it has too much of an impact in a child’s life. Either one or the other could be true, but not likely both.
One thing I don’t know whether you have considered is that each country receiving shoe boxes has a national leadership team of citizens of that nation, who decide how to allocate the gifts they get. If there’s an area where gifts wouldn’t be useful or needed, they’re in a great position to know that. They can also communicate with Samaritan’s Purse’s headquarters about what gifts are most appropriate and appreciated.
Another thing I don’t know if you have considered, but many people have pointed this out. True poverty isn’t just material – it also means not being noticed or honored, having little power and few choices, and (depending on the situation) possibly having little sense of being loved. A thoughtful gift, particularly if sent with words of love, is tangible evidence contradicting the grinding message of “You don’t matter, you are not important, you are nobody.” That, at least, is something we can do
I do agree, though, that Operation Christmas Child isn’t the be-all and end-all of what we are called to do. Nor do I think it is even intended to be. (As you point out, Operation Christmas Child is just one of Samaritan’s Purse’s many programs.) But it does have the benefit of allowing people to dip a toe into true involvement and caring, and it is an easy-to-access program that even people of very limited ability and means can meaningfully participate in.
Thank you for your thoughtful input and counterpoints, Mark.