Last year, I wrote a blog post concerning Operation Christmas Child in Zambia and the breakdown in expectations between box packers and what is happening on the ground. I particularly highlighted that churches are paying money to the National Team to receive their boxes. Since this post has recently re-gained traction, OCC has published an official response.
As many, many people have forwarded OCC’s note and asked me to respond to it specifically, I feel morally obligated to do so. However, not wanting to speak on behalf of our region’s Pastors without their input and permission, my husband, Jeremy, and I chose to first sit and talk with the leadership of the Mansa Pastors Fellowship. What they had to say was challenging to say the least. Desperately wanting to see change, the pastors requested that their words be shared with the larger audience that continues to follow this issue.
To provide readers with the most accurate account, I’ve chosen to transcribe the conversation with our local Pastors. My words are italicized, and all plain text are direct quotes from the Pastors. The transcription has been edited slightly for readability and length, but none of the pastors words or sentiments have been changed. Bracketed text has been inserted for clarification purposes only.
26, October, 2018
Location: Wetuna Gardens, Mansa
In attendance: Missionaries Jeremy & Bethany Colvin, and four members of the Executive Leadership of the Mansa Pastors Fellowship.
The number one question I’m getting is, ‘has this issue been resolved,’ and I’ve been avoiding giving the answer because I don’t feel like it’s my place to give your response.
[Reading of OCC’s official statement, passing out to pastors, after which the pastors take turns speaking.]
Some more than ten years ago, the same [National] team came to Mpika with one gentlemen from America and his wife. I was just invited, I wasn’t in the management team. During the discussion, that gentlemen from America was explaining that these shoe boxes reach the beneficiary free of charge. ‘It’s free. It’s covered in the costs.’ So… when his explanation was heating up, it was perceived it was going to attract questions, like, ‘why are we paying?’ and so [National Team Member] came out and spoke in Bemba, saying, “Bane, ifya ku sosela tafyawama…” (Brothers, tattling is not a good thing, let us not report each other.) And the gentlemen from America asked, “What are you saying” and [National Team Member] said, ‘I’m just clarifying for them,’ as if we weren’t getting what he was saying. And so in a matter of ten seconds, he [National Team Member] changed everything that the gentlemen from America was saying. To shut us up. And no one could speak against that. And it has haunted me for years that none of us was bold enough to tell the truth. And that gentlemen went with that perverted version of what is happening. What’s happening now is just a repeat. When they came to Mansa they brought a pre-typed letter saying that everything has been resolved and we the leaders refused to sign it.
I was very disappointed when I read this letter from OCC because they are shooting these gentlemen [fellow pastors around table] and hiding criminals in the name of this update. The least they could have done would be send some folks who are not a part of this, and instead they send [the National Team] to come and ask us questions. But there was nothing like questions, they just came to threaten us by saying “your children will not benefit from this.” And they have carried out their threat. Last year we did not receive boxes and this year, since we have not heard anything, we conclude we still aren’t receiving. They came to shush us. It was a rebuke. As if we are doing something scandalous, trying to stop something that’s beneficial to the children, when actually the key issue is trying to expose an immorality that has been going on.
They [the National Team] are the principle suspects. They are cashing in on the program. Why should they be sent to investigate? [OCC] should have sent an independent person or group to come and hear from us. That could have given us a fair trial. But now the same group comes here… what kind of investigation is that? They’ve been in this thing for more than ten years. And they have been manipulating the system.
[National Team Member] has bought a truck, and that is the same truck he uses to deliver the boxes. We suggested here, “Can’t we send our own truck to collect the boxes” and he said, ‘no, you have to use our truck,’ because it belongs to him and he charges [for its use], and that money goes into his pocket. Is that not corruption?
When we were told how much we should pay per box, for Luapula Province, it was more than K200,000 ($20,000) and for Mansa specifically it was K40,000 ($4,000). To bring a truck from Ndola to Mansa, you can hire that [a private truck] for K3,000 to K4,000, now they’ve charged K40,000 and where has the rest of that money gone?
Before the boxes come, they [National Team] has to come and do a training, but when we look at the cost implications of the [training], we pay a flat fee per church but then each individual Sunday School teacher has to also pay and you are required to send a set number of people to the training per X number of boxes you are to receive which forces the churches to send more people to the training, each of which have to pay to attend. The [National Team] says the money goes towards their accommodation here, but what happens is they will come and see us in Mansa, Samfya, Nchelenge all in one trip without sleeping here yet still having collected all that money. And this doesn’t include the payments the children have to make.
And when they [National Team] came they said, “No, the reason why we are charging you is because there are other regions that are more vulnerable, like Shangombo,” and then when you call Shangombo, you find out that they’ve paid too, so its all a lie.
They [the boxes] are not helping in terms of building the church. If anything they are destroying the church. Our colleagues from Ndola have not been faithful. We are not against paying something, but when the money does not go for what it was said it was for, it’s going into someone’s pocket, and then they declare that God has blessed them… that’s what we should discourage. And so if the same individuals are being entrusted with the task, then I would say, its better not to have it. Unless if they [OCC] can find a fairer system to help the churches. Because like our brother said, they [the National Team] has been doing this a long time. This is something they [National Team] has gotten used to, they aren’t going to change. If they [OCC USA] is going to keep using that same channel, then I think let it not come to us.
The little I know about Americans is that they champion the spirit of openness, the free mind, freedom of expression… now when we want to express ourselves, someone comes and says ‘shut up’ and follows with an action – suspension – now are they representing the spirit of the donor? Let the American people know that when things are pointed out by the locals here, they [National Team] stop giving boxes to people who are reporting those wrong things.
We are the people on the ground. We know ourselves. We are Zambians. And these people are Pastors. How can I submit to [National Team pastor] who is cheating me? If it were just a secular person we could just say, ‘well they are sinners,’ and let them go. But these are people with collars, showing the world that ‘we are servants of the Lord.’
What has to be highlighted is that an investigation has not been done. What was done could just be termed as a cover up – an intimidation. OCC, Samaritan’s Purse from the United States has not investigated. What’s missing categorically from this process is an independent inquiry towards the actual interest of protecting the huge investment that is being put into all this. It’s no longer even what we can call a gift box. They [the donors] would be amazed to learn that the children are buying these gifts and those people are proud to sell. I remember one of them [national team during training] trying to encourage us, “even I’ve benefited a lot just from doing ministry to children.”
In this section on the official response, it specifically says that the $9 covers shipment to the countries and to the 1,100+ delivery sites within the country. I don’t know how you read it, but it makes it sound like boxes are supposed to be sent from Ndola to Mansa and then from there the distribution costs are upon you. But what I hear you saying is that you were even willing to help cover the Ndola to Mansa cost – which just shows how much grace you have in the situation. But this is what a few hundred thousand people in the US are waiting to hear, whether this issue has actually been resolved in terms of the churches still being charged to cover transportation to the distribution sites – Mansa, Solwezi, Choma, Chipata etc. That’s what people are waiting to hear.
Actually I just called Reverend [name withheld] since I know they are still receiving boxes and I asked, ‘Were you charged anything this year?’ and he said ‘Yes, we paid for the boxes as a church.’ And he explained that they were told, ‘Don’t charge the children but you as a church pay for the boxes,’ and they were given an amount to pay and he also said, ‘We know how these people are, they’ve really benefitted from these boxes so just know that the way you’ve started talking to them, you’ll not be receiving boxes,’ and I said, Exactly! We didn’t receive and the Reverend said, ‘yeah, that’s what they do.’
These things are not gifts any more. These are enterprises. Those people are no longer qualified to represent Samaritan’s Purse. We speak for Zambia. We have to do whatever it takes for the sake of the children we are representing here. We know that those people are stealing from the children – it’s not speculation. It’s not rumor. Because [states denomination/branches around the whole country] has paid money each year for the children we have registered. We have receipts. It’s everywhere. It amounts to thousands and thousands of dollars. That’s what has been covered up. And no one seems interested in that.
Are there things that you want HQ to know?
We don’t agree with the statement that the matter was resolved because those who came to investigate are the suspects and secondly, the whistle blowers have been suspended for two [cycles] so far. Was this the resolution? Or is America aware?
We have not seen the values that OCC has projected to us applied in our region. If OCC can come up with a different [National] team whilst they are carrying out a proper investigation it will really serve us.
How connected in the past have boxes been to child evangelism. Are children coming to know Christ or are the boxes just a demonstration of Christian love.
The program is not happening like its supposed to. The same kids get the boxes over and over, and it’s the ones that can pay for them. [Evangelism] has been the emphasis [of training] in the past but practically, no. When they [National Team] comes they conduct those programs and say, ‘this is a tool for evangelism, and the emphasis is that the child will know how Jesus loves him through another child sending them this.’ But this is not evangelism. A lot of people are participating thinking we can just pay ten kwacha and get a box and go home.
If we could convince them [the donors] to just send it [the funds], it would be a very good idea, because I feel that even though this is for the sake of Christmas, the things that the kids get, and we thank God that what they are getting is American standard, but still it doesn’t really meet the needs of the children. These kids get a box – they’ve never been to school! They might get a toothpaste that is of a higher American standard, but we also have toothpaste here. So it’s nice that Christmas comes once but we can use cheaper things and in that way Christmas can go on and have a more lasting impact. Maybe we can convince some to just turn that [their box] into money. Because child-centered programs are incredibly important. And there’s a lot that can be done to mitigate the challenges that the children are facing.
People have asked us if there are alternatives. What if we were to put together a list of needs within the churches (school fees, blankets, clothes etc.) and collect funds to connect people with Mansa directly to meet tangible needs?
It can really have a lot of impact. We would be more confortable if our friends in America would be able to convert their boxes into cash so that we partner with Jeremy & Bethany [choshenfarm.org] in terms of administration and accountability for those resources. As we partner with you [Colvins] it would be an opportunity for the Church to focus on what it’s supposed to do and in a way that its supposed to be done. We have to go the Biblical way with structures of accountability. It’s not about dishing out money, its about making sure that things are done Biblically and people are accountable to leadership that is set.
We didn’t know what to do about this whole thing but the sharing you did, God used it to try and help us find the way to really address an injustice. We were stuck. We thought they [the National Team] was the beginning and the end. We didn’t know there was elsewhere we could report and other contacts we were able to get through to and you were able to do that for us and I think that was a major breakthrough. And now we are hoping that we can use our voice and correct this – even if they [OCC] doesn’t support us any longer – but maybe correct it for the other regions that are receiving, that would be a major breakthrough, and God will have really helped us.
I think the transparency of this is really helpful and people are going to thank you for taking something that was previously in the dark and putting it into the light.
Meeting closed in prayer.