Monday, October 21, 2013

Thoughts on Operation Christmas Child

Fall is here, and Protestant churches will be collecting shoe boxes full of children's items for Operation Christmas Child, sponsored by Samaritan's Purse. Several other bloggers have been posting their insights and reservations about the project, which I'd like to share here.

Samaritan's Purse, a Christian charity founded by Bob Pierce and later led by Franklin Graham, sponsors a gift-giving project called Operation Christmas Child. Every November, Samaritan's Purse collaborates with churches across America in collecting shoe boxes full of hygiene items, school supplies, and toys, which are shipped to disadvantaged children worldwide.

I first learned about Operation Christmas Child from friends years ago. The idea of giving boxes full of gifts to children in need was a powerful one, and I was soon at my local department store, buying soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, crayons, colored pencils, paper, and other sundries for shoe boxes. For two years I assembled shoe boxes, dropping them off at local churches designated as drop-off points.

And then I read the fine print.

According to their website, Operation Christmas Child distributes shoe boxes as part of its proselytization efforts. While Samaritan's Purse states that they share shoe boxes with children "unconditionally", shoe boxes distributions can be part of larger Gospel presentations. "Wherever appropriate, children are offered a copy of The Greatest Gift of All booklet in their own language by local churches and ministry partners," the Samaritan's Purse website says. "Soon after an OCC distribution event, the local churches and ministry partners may offer The Greatest Journey (TGJ) to the children participating in OCC in many of their communities," it adds.

This created a moral quandary for me. On one hand, I wanted to offer comfort, no matter how small, to children in difficult situations. I respected the global charity work of Samaritan's Purse and thought Operation Christmas Child was a novel initiative. On the other hand, I had moral qualms about proselytizing to children, especially children who might be emotionally vulnerable because of trauma from war or dire poverty. Children do not have the mental faculties to evaluate many of the messages they hear, including evangelism efforts, and may not fully understand the religion they are embracing. Choosing a religion is an adult task, not a childhood task, which is why Operation Christmas Child and the Greatest Journey made me so uncomfortable. Because of my discomfort, I stopped donating shoe boxes to the program, donating the money I would otherwise spend to secular charities instead.

Sheldon Cooper posted commentary about Operation Christmas Child at his blog, Ramblings of Sheldon. Sheldon is annoyed that an charitable organization would try to convert people while offering aid, instead of providing aid for its own sake.

"This really annoyed me, this is often the attitude that fundamentalists have when it comes to giving aid, whether in their home country, or elsewhere, that carrying out charitable aid is not done simply for the purpose of helping your fellow human beings live a better life, it’s done solely for the purpose of getting access to people to try to convert them. Carrying out charitable work solely to help people is seen as kind of pointless and ineffective.

... In the case of Operation Christmas Child, I find their attitude not only repulsive, but highly ironic since it’s lead by an organization (Samaritan’s Purse) that takes it’s name from the famous “Good Samartian” parable that Jesus told his followers.

In the story, the Samaritan man never expected anything from the man whose life he saved, and never tried to convert the man, who was Jewish, to his way of thinking, even though the two men would have had different opinions about religion. If the man in Jesus’ fictional story (which he used as an example for how people should act towards others) didn’t try to convert the man he helped, then why should an organization that takes it’s name from this story try to do exactly that? Why can’t helping others just be done for the purpose of helping others?"
In the comments section of Sheldon's post, Lana Hope of Wide Open Ground shared insights from her third-world missionary work. Lana highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of programs such as Operation Christmas Child. On one hand, toys in shoe boxes might not be appropriate for children in all cultures, and charitable money might be better spent on the ground by humanitarian workers themselves. On the other hand, the shoe boxes were a great kindness to destitute children. To boot, she reminds readers that Christian organizations do deliver aid across a wide swath of the world, and that secular charities have a lot of catching up to do.
"OCC went to my partnering orphanage in Cambodia. I don't know what was said because I wasn't there. But it's worth pointing out a few things.

1) This is the orphanage where the kids have nothing. Literally nothing. Every child has lice. They are malnourished. They kids don't even have an extra pair of clothes. Helping them out has been nearly impossible because the head of the orphanage (a local guy NOT westerner) is not wise with money. Bottom line: truly helping them will never be an option. A one time gift is about all that works, or spending time with them. So I honestly I thank OCC for what they did.

2) Obviously money goes further if we give money directly to the humanitarian workers to buy. Like waaaaaaaaaaaaay cheaper. Plus it's easier for us to buy what they need. For example, it's too hot in Cambodia for socks. In the jungle, our kids don't know what to do with a stuffed animal because animals are what you eat. Kids have to carry babies on their backs by the time they are 6. The jungle kids have no interests in dolls or stuffed animals. But then this remote village where I lived in the mountains, we couldn't buy socks there, yet had to have them for boots because the mud was too thick for flip flips. Where I lived 70 miles from there up until a few months ago, I never used socks. As you can see, what the kids needs vary so much that people who fill up the boxes are stabbing in the dark. However, I've never met kids who don't cherish paper and school supplies. Pretty much people can't go wrong there.

One of my friends refused to receive boxes from the US. She said, "Give me the money, and we'll buy." But here's the problem. Westerners won't send money. A pastor can get a congregation to send 200 boxes. But if a pastor asks everyone to donate $30, only a handful will respond. That is EXACTLY why we have boxes. Not because the missionaries prefer boxes. Not because the locals prefer boxes. But because that's how we get people to give.

3) Obviously I'm not a big fan of evangelism. I will also say as one who lived in an area with a lot of missionaries, that missionaries evangelize 99% less than they tell their western churches. In fact, I could count the number of missionaries that I've seen evangelize on my hand, of course the IFB missionary being one of them. Yet everyone goes back to their home churches in the west and acts like they evangelize because western churches would stop giving without it.

4) The secularists are not even remotely trying to take the place of where the evangelicals have gone wrong. If they don't like OCC, what are they doing instead? Usually the secular people tell me about a local western charity they are doing instead. I've got nothing against local charities. Nothing at all. But they can't ask me as a western missionary to stop working with or even thanking evangelicals for donating boxes for foreign aid until they step into their shoes. There are some organizations out there in my area, the UN, several animal rescue places in SE Asia, and a few non-religious organizations. There are also plenty of Christians who have funded non-religious organizations. So of course, this isn't a sweeping problem. Yet it remains true that the evangelicals have their hands in more areas.

5) I say this as one who would gladly work with a secular organization if I found one. I get tired of working with Christians because I'm expected to go to church and this and that. But you know what? I haven't found one that suits me."
Readers, what have been your experiences with Operation Christmas Child? Do you donate shoe boxes? If so, what motivates you to do so? What are your thoughts on some of the issues that Sheldon and Lana have brought up?

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