Sunday, March 11, 2018

Opening Up Christmas Shoeboxes: What Do They Look Like On the Other Side?

I love the hearts of Americans when it comes to generosity at Christmas. I love that there are hundreds of thousands of people who take the time, the money, and the care to pick out special gifts for millions of needy children around the world. Operation Christmas Child (OCC) shoeboxes really encapsulate the kindness of Americans at Christmas. And for Christians, Hope. Because many people who fill shoeboxes every November are praying and hoping that the child who receives their box will also receive the gospel.

And that's awesome.

I also recognize how important this ministry is to many American churches and families. It's a great tradition to do with your kids. It's fun. And the stories that Samaritan's Purse produces are compelling. The OCC boxes are a great way for the ministry to raise money (and Samaritan's Purse has some really great projects, including the new hospital at my beloved ELWA in Liberia).

I, too, loved the shoebox idea.

My first up-close-and-personal experience with Christmas shoeboxes came in 2005, just a couple years after we had moved to Tanzania. Gil and I had recently jumped in headfirst with doing youth ministry at Haven of Peace Academy. We decided that it would be good for our teens to visit an orphanage in December and bring Christmas shoeboxes for the kids.

So on one Saturday morning, all of our teens overloaded our kitchen table with bucketloads of soap, candy, pencils and other trinkets, and we filled over 100 containers with these gifts. Then we loaded up into vans and took off for the orphanage. Everyone was excited. We couldn't wait to see the joy on the kids' faces.

Shortly after arriving, the orphanage manager gave all of us a tour of the orphanage. Right away, I started to realize that maybe our shoebox idea wasn't so great after all. The kids at the orphanage had no personal possessions. They all shared clothes. They shared beds. I realized they wouldn't even have a place to keep the gifts we were giving them.

We played a bunch of games with the kids, and gave everyone cookies and punch. The boys played soccer and the girls painted nails, and there were lots of big smiles all around. Before we left, we sat all the kids down on mats and handed out the boxes. But the kids showed no excitement--no response at all. In fact, they didn't even open the boxes until we did it for them. Then they just stared blandly at the gifts.

We didn't take many pictures because there wasn't any excitement.
One of the missionary moms who had helped chaperone this event pulled me aside. "We've done a lot of work at orphanages," she told me. "The reason these kids aren't excited is probably because they've never owned anything. Once we leave, this stuff will most likely be collected up by the managers. Some of it might be used by the kids, but most of it will probably be sold by the adults."

She was right. We should have just stuck with the games and the snacks and not wasted our money on gifts. It was a hard, good lesson. 

You could write that off as just one bad experience. We didn't do it again, but at the time, I didn't want to cast judgment on the OCC concept as a whole.


As the years went on, I started to become more uneasy about OCC. I would see my American friends posting pictures on Facebook of the boxes they had so carefully and generously filled. On one hand, I was really proud of them for how they were showing love to the world's children. But on the other hand, I started to think about the people in poverty I know personally. 

I started thinking, I really hope the shoeboxes don't get sent here.

I thought about how Christmas is celebrated in churches in Tanzania. Christmas is a day of joy, and everyone gets together for special food. But children receive new clothes on Christmas--not toys. Children aren't sad that they didn't get any toys, because they don't expect them.

So I started to wonder: Do we want children to expect toys at Christmas? Has that tradition produced good fruit within our own culture? Is that a Christmas tradition that Americans want to export to the rest of the world?

I also started to wonder about how OCC boxes affect the local economy of the communities where they are sent. As you may have noticed from my story, we were able to fill 100 boxes with goodies that we purchased locally. Which makes me ask the question: If OCC boxes are really changing lives, is there really a need to ship these trinkets around the world? Couldn't they be purchased and assembled locally and support local economies? Wouldn't that be a better way to help those in poverty?

But the most important question I've had to ask myself is this:

What happens when the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ is associated with dollar-store trinkets from America?

Every year, Samaritan's Purse puts out promotional videos and articles that share the impact of OCC distribution to churches and ministries around the world. This last Christmas, one of those videos got personal for us.

At the end of November, Samaritan's Purse posted a video about a church planter in Tanzania who uses the shoeboxes to help him plant churches. The corresponding article is titled, "Operation Christmas Child Gifts Help Build the Church in Tanzania." (I encourage you to watch/read it before you read on.)

We don't know the man featured in this video and article. But we do know lots of Tanzanian church planters. So an (American) co-worker on our missionary team sent the link to a Tanzanian friend who is the leader of a growing, vibrant church planting movement all throughout Tanzania. Our co-worker asked him to watch the video and give his thoughts on it.

Here's how this courageous Tanzanian church planter responded. This man is biblical, influential, and is highly respected by everyone who knows him. These are his exact words. 

"1) First, we don't see in the Bible this model of 'gift giving' being used for disciple-making and planting churches.

2) The question I am asking myself is, 'If the shoeboxes gift are removed will there still be church planting?' I DOUBT IT! Then, this is not a church planting model.

3) I am also questioning about its reproducibility. Will the said 'members' of that church in Kitomondo do the church plant without the shoebox gifts? In my experience and stories I have heard, this model of mission outreach and church planting has never been effective, sustainable or reproducible. It has also produced a wrong view towards the Gospel, and causes other church planters who go to villages without gifts to be rejected or ridiculed.

4) This 'attraction' method of bringing people to the church has always given birth to 'church members' and not 'true disciples' of Jesus Christ.

5) I feel lots of damage is associated with this gift giving approach to missions, for it creates attachment to wrong things. Pastor Marco [from the video] says, 'I just need shoeboxes.' To me this is seriously dangerous. I deeply feel that WE NEED THE HOLY SPIRIT and only Him. While gifts may give us access to difficult places, they should not be the substitutes of the Holy Spirit. The gospel still needs to be presented in the power of the Holy Spirit. If it necessitates gifts to be given, they should be locally found and reproduced and not imported from America.  

6) Our experience in reaching unreached peoples has taught us a lot on gift giving. In some places, we haven't been well-received because the missionaries who went there before us presented gifts....and we have no gifts. When those missionaries left, their 'converts' also returned back to their old faith and were waiting for the next gift presenters. 

My advice always to Western missionaries is not to come to Africa with their strategies, not even strategies they saw working elsewhere. They have to come empty-handed, with the Holy Spirit, live among the unreached peoples, learn from them, asking the Holy Spirit what he wants done in these places. Western missionaries working cross-culturally need to stop and learn first. Otherwise, they are making it hard for us (who cannot have the shoeboxes) to do mission work."


This church planter's words hit me hard, and they are the main reason why I decided to write about this subject. It's one thing for American missionaries to question the strategy of OCC shoeboxes, because we don't always know what we are talking about. It's a totally different story when a Tanzanian church planter asks Americans to reconsider the ways we are trying to help their ministries. I need to pay attention. All of us do.

Most likely there are some places in the world--perhaps areas that are already more westernized or developed--where OCC boxes might help more than hurt. But truthfully, don't all of us--even those who minister in America--have something to learn from this Tanzanian church planter's words?  

Other overseas workers have written about similar concerns, including some that are up close and personal. I recently started a discussion about OCC (which turned quite lively!) on the Facebook page for A Life Overseas. Unfortunately, there were very few readers (who live internationally) who could point to any specific benefits they had seen from OCC. 

Friends, remember that I am sharing this as one who had to learn this (and many other things) the hard way. Gil and I have made a lot of mistakes in this country that has so graciously put up with us. We are forever learning. I hope you'll be willing to learn with us.

There's lots of time to mull this over before next Christmas. And if you are wondering about alternatives, click herehere, or here. If you want to help your own kids become poverty fighters, click here for some ideas. Please, don't stop caring about spreading the gospel to the world's children.

*Follow up post here: Sometimes the Starfish Story Doesn't Work: Read about eye-witness Shoebox stories from around the world. And ask the question with me: Should we be satisfied with just reaching some when we could use our resources more strategically to reach many? 


Keke said...

Amy, I'm new to your blog, so I'm just now seeing this article. I appreciate so much your thoughtful insight into this touchy subject, for I have had the same questions about the effectiveness of OCC and other Western solutions. Thank you for having the courage to speak up.

Amy Medina said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Keke!
(There used to be about 60 comments on this post that all disappeared when Google+ shut down. So it's nice to hear someone's thoughts on this again!)

Aquila said...

From your account of what went on, it sounds like you liked the "idea" of shoebox gifts, so went and got shoeboxes (on your own) and filled them up (on your own) and took them to the orphanage (on your own). I didn't see where you mention that you were contacted by Samaritan's Purse or Operation Christmas Child to do this in partnership with the National Team there in Tanzania. If that is the case, then you weren't "really" a part of the OCC initiative in your area which would have included a pre-selection informative session, an application and pre-distribution training on how to deliver the gospel with the shoeboxes. Possibly, you weren't contacted because you are not a native Tanzanian minister (because OCC does do work in Tanzania) and so the association with the local church there was also missing, which is central to the shoebox distribution. The reason for this is that it is intended to build upon what Tanzanians have worked hard to establish already and so that discipleship following the shoebox distribution can be offered and followed up on.

I'm sorry your effort fell flat but that is not the fault of Samaritan's Purse or OCC. You had your own idea of how it should go and, while I applaud your effort, you simply cannot cast dispersion on OCC because of how your event went because it was conducted completely outside of the OCC guidelines and was not done at their invitation.

Amy Medina said...

Dear Aquila,

Thanks for interacting with me on this. You are absolutely right--what we did was not a Samaritan's Purse initiative at all. However, I told that story because I wanted to explain my journey in coming to an understanding of the implications of gift-giving in these kind of contexts. As I said in this post, though focusing specifically on OCC, it is more broadly about the use of gifts from foreigners as an evangelistic tool. I don't think that there is anything particularly unique about what OCC does that negates the negative implications of this kind of gift giving.

Most importantly, the words from the Tanzanian church planter are what I would like my readers to focus on. What I think as a missionary is not nearly as important as what he thinks, and if he is making a case for how gift-giving from foreigners is actually hindering efforts in church planting, we need to pay attention. True, there are some of OCC's local contacts who might say otherwise, but the reasons they might agree to accept the boxes are varied and complex, and not always the kind of motives we would want or expect. My follow up piece with accounts from all over the world (especially Africa) gives examples of that.

Timothy Zeiset said...

I just recently learned about your blog and wish I would have known about it much sooner, as we're also missionaries in Tanzania and I love your articles on so many pertinent issues we face here. This article on gift giving in the African church planting context is spot on. It does fly in the face of so many mission strategies often fueled by well meaning people, but it's time we open our eyes to what is actually happening and admit that these strategies are often failing to accomplish what we came here to do. You are so right that we need the spirit of God and humility as we come into these places. Keep writing and being a voice