Friday, July 24, 2015

why it's worth thinking about shoeboxes in July

It’s Christmas in July – so we’re gonna roll with it.

So alllll the way back in Nov and December (yes, I’ve been thinking abut this well on half a year,) I found myself chatting with a good number of folks about Operation Christmas Child. If you’ve never heard of Operation Christmas Child (OCC), this post might be a little irrelevant, but I’ll still explain that OCC is a ministry of Samaritans Purse, which distributes gift-filled shoe boxes to needy children in more than 100 countries. The children receiving the shoe boxes are given a gospel presentation and invited to learn more.  

Many of the conversations I had this past winter were with Christians, genuinely interested in my perspective on OCC and its operations. Because mobilization for church-wide, participatory events like OCC happen well in advance, this conversation is almost perennially relevant; and with thousands of Churches getting in on the action, I am glad that the people around me are asking thoughtful questions about best practices and methodology.

The truth is, I love that Operation Christmas Child is so effective at mobilizing first-world Christians on behalf of the global poor. I love that whole churches rally and do something not-selfish at this super-selfish time of year. I love that whole families get involved, from the box-prep to the shopping to the letter writing to the shipping. (My own family did this too when I was growing up!) I love that American kids are given the opportunity to leave the “give me, give me!” bubble and think about poverty and injustice. I love the heart of wanting to reach the world’s little ones with Good News.


But… (Oh, you knew there was a but coming…)

But then April happened and the love started to wane. It was in April that Jeremy was preparing for the regional pastors conference that we were hosting. We had invited a visiting lecturer from America to come and teach and had spent boku bucks getting everything ready for the nearly 100 pastors that were registered to attend… And then… the day before the conference started, Operation Christmas Child reps showed up in the town nearest us and announced to all of the pastors of the region that they were needed in order to distribute several thousand shoe boxes. (Christmas shoe boxes… in April… whatev.) This untimely maneuver jacked from us about two thirds of our conference attendees. Thanks, Christian ministry, for stepping all over a brothers toes.

Christians wrecking a pastors conference felt a little more than “untimely and discourteous” and I went all whistle blower in front of my laptop because, by  gum, I have words.

I’ve long held back my true feelings about OCC, but April’s distasteful situation begged for at least a little stirring of the pot. I seriously considered: what with over 10 million shoe boxes expected to go out this year, I can’t help but think about just how many of my friends and family are invested in OCC, and how many of them want to do good, and not harm, for the name of Christ in the world.  

Thankfully, Christmas in July is a thing in this country, so I’ll take this opportunity to just come right out and say it: I’m deeply uncomfortable with the mashup of Christmas presents and the gospel. My complaint is simplistic, but I think its significant enough to warrant rethinking at least something about those 10 million shoe boxes.

I know many Christians wrestle with our culture’s gift obsession at Christmas time. We are celebrating Christ’s birth, the coming of the Redeemer, Emmanuel, God with us, and somehow that gets translated practically into gimme gimme gimme shop shop shop buy buy buy consume hoard overload and what have you. The central figure of the season is not a baby in a manger but boxes under a tree – a reality which makes us all feel uncomfortable, and yet at the same time we do little more than give “Jesus is the reasons for the season” posters a bit of real estate in our front yards.

We don’t like it, we wring our hands over it, and still, we export it. Operation Christmas Child. I heard it many times as a young girl – “Think of all those poor children out there who aren’t getting anything for Christmas!” I pictured sad looking children sitting on the floor on Christmas day, longing for a present to unwrap. I was taught to be particularly grateful for the material goods in my life. I simply figured that one could not be happy without the stuff. And I learned to pity those without it.

 I think many of us in the Western world have been led to believe that the equation of more presents equals happiness is an absolute truth. No stuff, no happy. Materialism is the air we breathe and it is no surprise that it has worked its way into the way we do ministry.

If I take the gift idea a step further though – out of the realm of the materialistic world-view and into the practical, I have to ask a simplistic question: Why does the third world need boxes of trinkets and doo-dads anyway? I mean, apart from their inherent and existential happiness, WHY do all the little children of the world so desperately need the contents of those boxes such that we’ve elevated their importance to the level of dying people relief rations. When I think about the things I used to pack in my childhood OCC box – socks, pencils, cheepo-toys, I realize all of those things can be purchased in the Mansa market, for a fraction of the cost and without the $7 shipping. And speaking of cheepo toys, I think at least some American box senders need to repent on this one. Remember when we talked about “betterthan nothing” being euphemism for crap? Mhhm. Case. In. Point. I read a Washington Post article not long ago advising moms who are tired of all the junkety junk their kids bring home from birthday parties to take half those unwanted party favors and shove them in an Operation Christmas Child Box. (I was loving the article until I to to #8... and then I threw up a little in my mouth.)

So we export Christmas-time materialism in the form of stocking stuffers, misrepresenting it as useful aid, and then what? We bait it on a hook and lure kids in to get them to listen to a gospel presentation. We’ve witnessed enough give-aways in Fimpulu and surrounding villages to know that “free stuff” has an almost irresistible effect on people of all ages. It doesn’t even matter what it is; poverty mentality hypnotically drives people to go to do whatever it takes to get the “free stuff,” and OCC capitalizes on that dynamic.

we had to learn the hard way that even silly little things - if given for free free - can create a frenzy
When “stuff” is on the line, people have learned to do and say whatever is necessary to assure that they are the beneficiaries of the stuff-giving program. Raise my hand and ask lots of questions? I can do that! Check a box? Sure thing! Say a prayer? Join a Bible study? Well, why not? OCC-ers may never say, “IF you accept Jesus we will give you presents.” But I don’t think they have to. The linkage is made the moment those boxes come through the door and that’s motivation enough to “get saved” as many times as is necessary to make sure they miss out on no good thing.

Deeper and deeper does this drive the momentum of the prosperity gospel across Africa, saying again and again in kid-friendly ways that the more they say yes to Jesus, the more they can expect shiny objects to appear in front of them.

Is the distraction of the presents really enough to distort the gospel and diminish Jesus’ position as the true and lasting gift? I’d wager that yes, or at least a really strobg maybe. I don’t think it is OCC’s fault, but, in our observation, this is how at least a Zambian village works. I blame the confluence of the NGO culture and the poverty culture and the aid culture butting up against the Christian culture, and suddenly all that stuff we hear preached in village churches about keeping God happy and expecting piles of good stuff makes a painful amount of sense.

Herein lies the truest danger of the shoe boxes, the subtle communication that God barters material presents for external agreement, void of repentance, reconciliation and relationship. And when the stuff stops appearing and the temptations of real life send a person searching, its all to easy to drop the Christian gig and return to familiar animism Because if God is the giver of stuff and the stuff aint comin’ then obviously God has abandoned me and I’m going back to what I know to be true.

Would it be worth sending something other than trinkets in a box maybe? Schools or clinics or human resources maybe? Just maybe?

Feel free to keep the conversation going. What’s your take?


  1. Ugh. I wrote a thoughtful comment that got eaten. So, in short, YES, these are great (uncomfortable) considerations. Thanks for the post.

  2. Ugh. I wrote a thoughtful comment that got eaten. So, in short, YES, these are great (uncomfortable) considerations. Thanks for the post.

  3. I'm grateful that you took the time to share your honest thoughts, Bethany. I feel enlightened. It's not surprising I suppose that we are materistic to the extent that we can't see around this. I have some concerns about a food aid program where I think the greater benefit comes to the givers, not the recipients - and possibly some harm is done. sigh. Is a shame in that benefit from OCC does come to the givers.