Saturday, March 4, 2017

boxing up expectations: reflections on OCC and the church

It was a fairly typical Thursday in our house. My husband went to the Mansa Pastor’s Fellowship, the meeting ran late, he got home and scarfed a “used to be warm” meal and gave me the run down of news from our region’s pastors.

So the boxes came up again, he started. I paused from my counter de-greasing to hear this one. Just a few days prior at the Fellowship’s Valentine’s Day event - capping off an otherwise delightful evening of food, love and laughter - the issue of “paying for our boxes” came up in the announcements. Through the thick murmur of voices, we gathered the sound bites of boxes, pay, free, why and no. Missionaries are really good at rolling with confusion so we held onto our questions. (And it was late – the newlywed game went long because we could not stop cracking up.)

Thankfully, at the next weekly meeting of the Fellowship, the topic came up again, and this time, being a more appropriate venue and atmosphere for discussion, the voices of all were heard, one at a time, and a thorough conversation went on and on.

Livid, Jeremy told me. They are livid. These pastors are the most gentle shepherds, so I had to know more. In bullet-point format, Jeremy explained that the Operation Christmas Child boxes had reached the warehouse in Ndola and that the Mansa churches needed to come up with eight kwacha per box for 5,000 boxes to receive their shipment. That’s $4,000USD, Jeremy said, telling me what I had already calculated. He continued to share that comments from the pastors ranged from, “We don’t have this kind of money,” to, “Aren’t these boxes supposed to be free?” to, “Next year, let’s just refuse the boxes all together!”

We haven't always been at these gatherings during OCC distribution time, and so we were back-peddling a little to make sense of these statements. Wait, wait, wait…  is this how it always is? What’s the money going for? Who is responsible for it? Despite the remaining questions, two things were crystal clear: the pastors were forking over cash for OCC boxes, and they were NOT happy about it.

Truth telling and transparency are core values for me, and the details out of that Thursday’s conversation just felt like something that needed to be shared.

This went up on my facebook wall and I honest to goodness didn’t expect much interaction with it. After all, it was a fairly bland statement – I didn’t flavor it with any personal opinions or emotional judgment. I posted because I myself was wrestling with unmet expectations, and I figured a few others out there might be as well. My goal was to describe the gap and let it speak for itself.

Days later, that conversation was still going, and I started composing this post as a way of saying all that I couldn’t say in a comments section. (Speaking of which, I made that particular post public so that anyone can read the full comments … in case you wanted to catch up…)

Having taken time to both dialogue and reflect (thank you, by the way, to everyone who shared thoughts and opinions with me,) I have observed that many, if not most people who engage with Operation Christmas Child do so with three main expectations. I will describe those below along with my observations regarding how those expectations seem to be playing out in Zambia.  

a quick side note...

(Before saying anything further, I need to make the disclaimer that the following opinions are 100% my own and not necessarily representative of anyone I work with or for. Furthermore, my opinions are drawn from my experiences in Zambia alone and may not be reflective of every country in which OCC operates.)

OK back to business…

Expectation one: The $7 shipping cost gets the box TO THE CHILD

This is certainly the most flagrant of unmet expectations. In my initial quest to understand why the churches of Mansa were paying to receive their boxes, I learned from OCC USA directly that the $7 only ships the container(s) of boxes as far as the central warehouse in the country – in our case, Ndola. It is OCC policy that the National Leadership Team (volunteers, and all Zambian) be responsible for distribution and raising funds to cover in-country transportation costs. Historically in Zambia, this has meant levying a transportation fee/payment amongst the churches in each district. This fee is not optional – this is not a free will offering – and it is announced to the churches that those who do not pay will not receive.

OCC policy clearly states that boxes are not to be sold. However, the Leadership Team’s directive to “raise funds” and their decision to do so by levying a “standard transportation fee” has effectively translated to a system of selling and buying the boxes – the National Team sells and the churches buy and that money takes care of the in-country transportation cost as per OCC’s plan. Some churches have chosen to absorb the cost on behalf of their congregants; others have merely fronted the costs and will then re-sell the boxes to the families themselves.

In dialoguing with many box senders in America, it is clear to me that no one actually wants to be a burden to the recipients. A lot of discouragement was generated by the thought of the rural poor having to scrape together funds to buy presents, and I was asked if there was a better way. Well...

I spoke directly with OCC USA regarding the policy and potential solutions. We didn’t have a particularly thorough brainstorming session, as that wasn’t the point of the call, but it did stand out to me that all “solutions” mentioned still kept the burden of transportation cost on the rural communities. Again, this is OCC policy. It was explained to me that OCC strategically does NOT charge the sender $7+K8 in order to ship all the way to the children because they WANT the churches to pay something. As an organization, they do not want to create an unhealthy dependency

This comment about dependency leads me to my second unmet expectation:

Expectation two: The gifts are HELPFUL both in evangelistic outreach and material aid

I’ve already written a full post outlining my thoughts regarding OCC and the coupling evangelism with Christmas gifts. I’d encourage you to read that post as well as I don’t intend on going into it here, but the spoiler is that I thoroughly disagree with this methodology for moral, cultural, and theological reasons.

As for the second element – helpful material aid – when the kind OCC staffer in North Carolina told me that they insisted that the churches pay so as to “avoid dependency,” I heard in that word choice the patent use of “development worker speech.” I started to wonder, just how many people really consider the shipping of these boxes to be an effective form of relief and/or development aid? It seems like Christmas presents don’t necessarily need to be sustainable, so… are our friends packing their boxes full of socks and washcloths and toothbrushes and Band-Aids because they believe they are supplying items that the child actually, desperately needs?

It may be quite right that a child would not have gotten a new toothbrush without that box, and that makes us all feel so useful on this planet, but if material aid is the expectation, this is not good stewardship of resources. For the cost of that new (American) toothbrush, a child in Mansa could buy 10 toothbrushes in the market. This pattern holds true for many of these “necessity” items.

A cost analyses on the boxes as a whole is even more striking. Expenditure certainly varies, but if we guestimate that the average box – contents plus shipping – is worth roughly $30, then have we done a good job of counting the “alternative cost?” Have we considered what could be done with that money instead?

in rural Zambia, $30 can pay for…

60,000 liters of potable drinking water

100 kg of maize meal – feeding a family of 5 for 4 MONTHS

school fees and uniforms for 6 elementary kids for a year

2 breeding goats

6 insecticide treated mosquito nets

15 gallons of soy beans

wages for 3 weeks of farm work
The families are not consulted, of course, (further evidence of poor development practice) – meaning, no one has ever asked them directly, “would you rather have a box of assorted American goods, or would you rather send all of your kids to school this year?” Yikes. Do we even want to know the answer? Would it bust our expectations left and right? And if it did, are we courageous enough to do something else?

community based needs assessment is not an optional step

One thing I did learn from the comment thread on the original post is that there are plenty of families who do NOT share in this expectation. They fully recognize that this is maybe not the best evangelism tool, and it is without question NOT the best aid, but they do it anyway because of the benefit to their kids. I thought about that one long and hard, and to this group I say – despite all my other feelings – GOOD ON YOU, parents, GOOD ON YOU. You have taken intentional action to make your privileged children more generous, aware and missions minded, and this is so very worthwhile. I have heard your question, “is there a better option?” and I desperately want there to be. The impetus is on the local church and its sent-out-missionaries to strategize and facilitate this caliber of experience. We have not done all that we can do, and for that, I am sorry. Nevertheless, you deserve all the props for being both third world savvy and good disciplers of your kids.

As a final observation, I’ll share a third expectation:

Expectation three: A reputable organization like Samaritans Purse can be trusted to  provide oversight

The first responses to hit the wall after my post went live were filled with disbelief. What? How is that possible? There must be an explanation! Not Samaritans Purse!?!?!? Even after I shared “the rest of the story” (that OCC knows that the recipients pay and actually expects them to pay), a handful continued to defend OCC by offering a variety of positive examples from around the world. The sharers of these stories are likely believing that these gold-star results in one location are representative of results everywhere.

As I said at the outset, my perspective is 100% Zambia specific. All I know is that the disappointment over the cost of the boxes HERE is unmistakable. Every other commenter with experience in Zambia said the same thing.

What for all the yeah but… yeah but… yeah buts…stemming from those alternative examples from other countries, still, as far as I’m concerned, ^^^ this means something.

An addendum to the above expectation would be that we expect uniform results across the board. However, a basic rule of a GLOBAL aid organization, is that one-size-fits-all (and works for all,) is not a thing. The cultural climate, relationship to the west, perceptions of power/respect/authority – these all matter hugely.

OCC handles its oversight requirement largely by working with National Leadership Teams, seconding to them great authority in each state of the process. Here, the Team in Ndola – for cultural and other reasons – was not shuttling report of the discontentment across the ocean. The American representative told me that he works closely with the Ndola team and would follow up with them… I was only mildly comforted considering that this voice was 7 time zones away. “Work closely with” can mean so many things… I mean, Jeremy and I would say that we “work closely with” our local pastors; and by this we mean, we know them. Henry Mumba is a jovial leader who almost fell in our pond going down our zip line… Pastor Bwalya fasts and prays quarterly at our farm and never lords his title of Chairman of the Fellowship over anyone… Bishop Chimanga prays for provision while refusing to takes a penny from his extremely poor congregation whose roof we re-constructed this year… Reverend Mwansa is a phenomenal worship leader who is always helping others despite having nine kids of his own. These partnerships are relationally rich – and effective for that reason.

I’ve always been an advocate of supporting the little man because THIS is where accountability WORKS. No one has ever had to call us from another continent to tell us that one of our programs is not working. When something flops, we know it in about twelve seconds because the casualties of that flop usually come knocking on our door. In the same vein, if someone has a question or concern and would like an audience with the top-of-the-top of our organization, I’m pretty sure I can arrange that – dinner is at 6 and please don’t mind if my children throw peas. They lose their minds when we have visitors.

Scope and size of impact grow as an organization gets larger and larger, but quality control is almost always inversely impacted, and that is an understandable tradeoff.

Actually, so much of what we’ve observed with OCC is “understandable” and this is why I “stated the gap” without overt judgment. On some level, I get it. My point in sharing what I have is that the massive donor base of North America is not well versed at vetting, monitoring and evaluating the projects that our funding goes to. We trust the big names – sometimes too much.

At the end of the day, each donor is responsible for his or her investment, and no one else’s. Merely assuming that the stewards of your money are living up to expectation benefits no one. Asking questions and following up need not be hostile or cynical; BUT, with great (financial) power comes great responsibility.

Also, I concede that a lapse in expectation need not be a deal breaker. This too is a personal choice. For me, the unmet expectations outlined above are not palatable, and I will probably never participate with OCC for this reason, nor would I recommend others to participate either. But this is just one opinion, and my perspective is both biased and inherently imperfect. I appreciate the others who have shared their perspectives with me and expanded my understanding. You make me a better missionary, and I thank you.

*** UPDATE ***

Due to the outpouring of concern generated by this post, Operation Christmas Child has issued a formal response. Prompted by further reader concern, my response to that communication can be read: HERE. Please take the time to read the follow-up post as it is comprised of direct statements from the local pastors. I hope you'll find it as helpful as I did. 

Also, please note in the comments below how many people have shared similar examples from countries OTHER than Zambia. OCC continues to paint this as a localized problem. The testimonies below give credence to the fact that it is most certainly not.