Tuesday, November 26, 2019

OCC Shoeboxes: Answering the Arguments

It's that time of year when articles start circulating about Operation Christmas Child. Having taken on the subject myself, I am always interested to read what others have to say. This week, I read this one from Washington Post: Filling millions of shoeboxes for poor kids seems like a great idea. Here's why it's not, by Brian Howell, a Wheaton professor. 

The article is excellent. But the comments on that piece spurred me to add a few of my own. I've copied a few of the comments here and added my thoughts below.


Argument #1: "We shouldn't criticize OCC Shoeboxes because they are a wonderful evangelism tool."

"The primary purpose of this outreach, which is to spread the word of Jesus Christ. That alone holds more value than any variety of items contained in the boxes themselves. The boxes are evidence of Christ’s love in action. Powerful message of faith, love and hope."

"Operation CHRISTmas Child. This charity also puts Bible materials into each shoebox, telling them about Christ and salvation. That's the message. The gift shows love."

My thoughts: 
I won't get into the evidence that the "Bible materials" are sometimes left out of boxes. Let's assume that the Gospel Booklet is included in the box. Let's assume that it's in a language that the recipients can read. Let's assume that the recipients are able to read. (Yes, that's a lot of assumptions.) The question remains: Even if all those things are true, are families more likely to read the booklet if it comes along with gifts for their children?

Well, let's think about what we would do. Let's say a local Hindu or Buddhist temple in your community advertised that they would be offering free Kindles or gift cards on one of their religious holidays. Would you go? Sure you would, especially if you were financially struggling. Would you read the religious literature that came with it? Out of curiosity, maybe you'd give it 30 seconds, max. What if you had to listen to a 30 minute religious lecture in order to get the gift? If it meant a free Kindle, why not? 

But what would be the chances of you giving that religion serious consideration? Probably next to nil. Now, if you were struggling financially or emotionally or spiritually, and someone from that temple came alongside you and loved you and sought to really help you through your problems, that might actually make a difference in considering that religion. Otherwise, you'd take your gift card and be out of there (well, until the next give-away). Right? And if the relationship is really what would make the difference, why would you need the "bribe" in the first place? 

Why would we expect people from developing countries to be any different?

I love that Samaritan's Purse trains church leaders in children's ministry. I just don't understand why we need to ship toys and toothbrushes around the world in order to make that happen. 


Argument #2: These countries/communities/families are so messed up that the best we can do is just give the children a little joy. 

"This guy [the author] has some real problems.....perfect example of "the glass is half empty, not half full". Sad man who doesn't get it. Besides many of these kids live in environments where businesses and local charities are corrupt [and] looted by their authoritarian regimes. And many kids have no functional parents and homes."

My thoughts: 
Um, I'm a little ticked off by this one, actually. So.....if the businesses and local charities are corrupt and looted, why are we assuming that OCC shoeboxes will be exempt from that? How about this extensively detailed example of the massive corruption surrounding OCC shoeboxes in Zambia? 

I'm not going to address the "no functional parents and homes" comment because that is just plain insulting to people in poverty. And even if it was universally true, is a little box full of toys what children with "no functional parents and homes" really need?


Argument #3: Every child, worldwide, desires/needs/deserves toys on Christmas Day. 

"This article gets a 12 on a scale of 10 on my "Bah-humbug" meter."

"I am stunned. What ever happened to the joy of giving, and the joy in a child's heart when receiving, on Christmas day? Operation Christmas Child is not meant to support the local economy. It is not meant to create feelings of independence. It is not meant to address systemic problems or empower local leadership. It's purpose is purely to bring a little joy into a poor child's life on Christmas day, nothing more, nothing less."

My thoughts: 
Lots of eye-witness accounts tell us that most boxes do not arrive by Christmas, and therefore are not associated with Christmas at all. But even if they do, why do we assume that children around the world are hoping for toys for Christmas? 

We Americans have to get the romanticized notion out of our heads that children around the world long for a Christmas Day experience that mirrors that of our own children.

Let me put it this way: Have your children, even once, longed for an amazing Eid celebration? Probably not. They don't know what Eid is. You might not know what Eid is. Even though two billion people in the world celebrate Eid, your children aren't sitting around on Eid, wishing desperately that some rich Muslims would send them gifts. It's not even in their vocabulary. So why should we impose our ideas on the world of what we think children "need for Christmas?" Most children around the world don't celebrate Christmas. Many haven't even heard of it. So let's not fill shoeboxes in order to just be Santa Claus, fulfilling what we think are the Christmas wishes of children around the world.

And to extend this example a little more, let's say that a mosque in your community decided to give out free goat legs for Eid to anyone who wanted one. After all, that's what they enjoy on Eid. If you were financially struggling, you might take advantage of this offer. But considering you had never cooked a goat leg before and might not even like the taste, you probably wouldn't be that excited about this gift. You might wish that they would have just given you the money instead of the meat. So why do we impose our idea of what we enjoy for Christmas on people of other cultures? 

For those communities overseas that do celebrate Christmas, why can't local churches source local gifts for a children's outreach? If they need funding, then Americans could provide that funding, but I guarantee that the money would go so much further by buying local products that are not only cheaper, but far more desired and appreciated by local people. 

My local church in Tanzania is doing just that. And you know what they are buying poor children? School shoes. So that they can go to school. Not shoeboxes filled with toys, but actual shoes. They are meeting a direct, personal, specific need that will light up the children's faces and improve their standard of living. Want to support that campaign? Contact me and I'll let you know!


Argument #4: The giver gets so much joy out of filling a shoebox. 

"I get his points but don't agree that this kind of giving is bad. One of the virtues to such programs is getting Americans thinking about people in other countries, which down the road, theoretically, could lead to better policies in these countries because more Americans will understand the need. We can be very insular here. But beyond all that, it's just nice to give."

"There's something about packing a box yourself that brings more joy than writing a check."

"There's a human connection to packing a box, knowing human hands elsewhere will touch the same items."

My thoughts: 
Why should giving ever be mainly about what makes the giver feel good? Yes, it's great to teach our children to think about other countries, but aren't there better ways to do that? Do we really want to teach our children that sending toys half way around the world is the best way to help poor people?

I addressed this in How to Help Your Kids Become Poverty Fighters.


Argument #5: Why can't we both support development work and fill shoeboxes?

Oh, come on. Isn't this being a little curmudgeonly? Try doing both -- giving kids Christmas presents and developing projects for long-term development. It is, really, Christmas.

My thoughts: 
What if the Christmas presents are actually hindering development because of the unhealthy relationships they cause? What if OCC shoeboxes are actually hindering church planting efforts

Wouldn't it make sense to steward the massive amount of resources behind OCC (money and manpower) to help that child in more ways than just bringing him or her "a little joy" on Christmas day?

Far more important to these children are things like clean water, the chance to go to school, and to be able to live with their families instead of being sent to an orphanage. Child sponsorship or investing in development projects are a far better uses of our resources and energy. 


Argument #6: If OCC is so ineffective, why does Samaritan's Purse keep doing it?

No one brought this up this time, but I've heard it many times before.

My thoughts:
Let's ask these questions: What if OCC generated so much publicity for Samaritan's Purse that they keep the program going, even if it's ineffective? What if that publicity is what raises funds for their (much more effective) development projects around the world? What if Samaritan's Purse was able to take all the money that goes into OCC (both for the gifts and the shipping) and have it at their disposal for other things? Would they really choose to use it for shoeboxes? Or for wells, hospitals, and schools? 

So basically that means that even though I'm saying that there are far better ways to steward our giving than OCC, don't stop giving in other ways. For that matter, don't stop giving to Samaritan's Purse. Why not take the $30 you spend on a shoebox and donate it directly to one of their development projects? 

*Added November 30: Whoa! From a Samaritan's Purse employee's perspective, this article is a must-read. "As an employee of the same parent company, I can tell you that OCC is not run like a ministry, it is a business. As such, it will do what people pay it to do. We can repeatedly sound the alarm that OCC is hurting people in Jesus’ name, but it will not change so long as it’s being paid to continue."

This is a picture circulated on Facebook: OCC shoeboxes being sold in a local market. I'm sure the senders didn't have this  picture in mind when they carefully packed those boxes.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Deepest, Darkest, Dangerous....America

When we were in the process of moving to Tanzania, Gil and I tried to buy life insurance. We had two agents checking dozens of agencies for us, and neither could find a single life insurance agency willing to take us.

Why? Because we were moving to deepest, darkest, dangerous Africa. Um, what? We weren't moving to a war zone. I wondered if the insurance companies knew something we didn't.

Granted, we've had a few scary things happen to us here. There were a few years when violent home invasions were so common (we know more than a dozen friends who have experienced it) that we had a hard time sleeping at night. Yes, there's malaria and Dengue fever. Sure, we worry that there's no 911 to call. But you know what's ironic? I'm a lot more worried about taking my kids to live in the States than I am about raising them in Tanzania.

Kids don't get shot at schools in Tanzania. Gil and I spent 8 years living in Santa Clarita, where the most recent school shooting took place. I taught in the Saugus School District, where schools went on lockdown. I know a number of people (or their kids) who were at Saugus High School that day. Then I read that one victim was named Gracie. I have a Gracie. And the other victim, Dominic, looked a little like my Josiah. It hit home.

But it's not just school shootings. It's that I'm taking my kids to a country that isn't always just or kind to dark-skinned people, especially young men. It's a country where greed and materialism lurk around every corner, tempting my children to idolize "stuff" instead of living with gratefulness for what they have. A place where women's skin sells, where girls have to fit into a cookie-cutter image to feel beautiful. Where the worldview fights to ingrain young people with a deeply fractured view of the body, a low view of life, and a flippancy towards sexuality.

Sure, my kids are exposed to some of those things while living in Tanzania. The internet is everywhere now, so there is no sheltering children from the worldview of America. But the truth is that my kids are living an extremely healthy life here. They go to a Christian school that is highly international both in students and staff; their teachers and coaches are deeply committed to them; they play lots of sports but it doesn't take over their lives. They are daily exposed to poverty and are being trained in service. They live in a place that values community over time; there is very little junk food; there is only one store at the mall where they want to spend their money.

Relocating to America feels much more like moving to a scary foreign land than moving to Africa ever did.

It's all perspective, of course. I did once write that Sometimes Africa Scares Me. There are no truly "safe" places on this side of eternity, not even in Santa Clarita, one of the safest cities in America.

But as a Christ-follower, is safety ever supposed to be my motivation? Am I supposed to be seeking after Heaven on earth? Or do I go where God leads me, and trust Him to be my safety?

Even in America.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Pamoja Week at HOPAC Actually Came Out of Disunity

Pamoja Week at Haven of Peace Academy actually came out of disunity.

When missionaries move overseas, they expect to learn to navigate the new culture of their host country. What they don't usually expect is that they will also need to learn to navigate the cultures of other missionaries.

Sometimes this is hilarious. For example, I have fond memories with British or South African friends as we laughed ourselves senseless over our cultures' varying uses of terms such as "hooter," "fanny pack," and "shag rug." Depending on where you are from, you may be horrified that I just wrote such words on my blog.

Other times are not so funny. Like, for example, when you are trying to run an international school, and the Brits and the Americans have very different ideas of what makes a good school. One prominent example was when my friend Lauren (also an American) and I went to the (British) high school principal and told him that we wanted to plan a graduation ceremony for the graduating seniors. He looked at us as if we had just said we wanted to take the students on a trip to the moon. Because in England, there are no high school graduation ceremonies. Students don't graduate--they just pass or not pass exams.

And that was just a small conflict. Back around 2004, the debate over American versus British curriculum almost made the school implode. It was like the Revolutionary War all over again, this time in Tanzania.

So anyway. Back to Pamoja Week. About 10 years ago, Gil and I took over the high school Student Council. Another (American) teacher had started it a couple of years previously, but hadn't gotten very far because the concept of Student Council is also very American, and the British principal didn't know what to do with it.

But when Gil and I took over, the high school principal just happened to also be American. Woohoo! (This is another important thing for missionaries to learn: You'll eventually get your way if you just wait long enough for everyone else to leave.) So, great. We got Student Council off with a bang. And what does every good American Student Council plan? Spirit Week, of course!

Our American high school principal immediately agreed: Of course we could do Spirit Week! Why not? Except that the elementary school principal was British. And he had never heard of Spirit Week. His interpretation was Holy Spirit Week (after all, HOPAC is a Christian school), so down in elementary school, they had a special emphasis on the Fruits of the Spirit that week. He was fairly disturbed that up in high school we were dressing up with our clothes on backwards and throwing marshmallows at students' peanut-butter faces. Because in England, you don't have fun at school. (Hey--their words, not mine.)

This caused some--ahem--interesting discussions. Gil and I, in our stubborn American-ness, couldn't understand why we couldn't do it our way. The right way, of course.

It all came to a head during a rather tense "discussion," when Kandyl Kotta, the Student Council president (who was thankfully neither American nor British, but Tanzanian), politely told off all the adults in the room. She basically told us we needed to get a hold of ourselves and act like adults.

Yeah, we were pretty ashamed of ourselves.

It was also Kandyl who suggested that we change the name of Spirit Week, since the name itself was causing a lot of confusion. We brainstormed ideas, but in the end, it was Kandyl herself who suggested the winner: Pamoja Week. Pamoja is the Swahili word for together.

And so, like so many other things at Haven of Peace Academy, Pamoja Week became unique to HOPAC. At first, Gil and I tried to stuff it into the American "Spirit Week" box by ending the week with a "homecoming" type event with a big soccer game on Friday night. Except, try as we might, we never could get a team to come play us for a night game. Instead, a couple of years later, the crowning event of Pamoja Week became International Day, an event that had already been in place since the school's inception. They fused together perfectly.

Ten years later, how fitting that the week that caused so much division is now a celebration of our togetherness. How fitting that the week we celebrate our togetherness ends in a day where we celebrate our unity in diversity.

Last week, the Medina family celebrated our last Pamoja Week and International Day. With us leaving, I'm worried that the story behind it will be forgotten. Which is why I wrote it down today.

Pamoja Week and International Day, 2019

I taught her in fifth and sixth grade! AHH! It was so awesome to have her there!

And more nostalgia....The Medina family at International Day Over the Years (in no particular order)

Sunday, November 10, 2019


The grief of leaving hits me at odd times.

Josiah just turned twelve and got bacon for his birthday. He was thrilled. And I was wistfully sad to think about how this is the last birthday where anyone will be excited to receive bacon or Pringles or Coco Pops as birthday presents.

There are times when leaving feels like a relief. My job is stressful, often, these days. I am unfailingly determined to finish well, to complete the projects I started, to invest all that I can into this school I adore. People ask me what I want to do next year and I say, I really just want to plant flowers and get to know my neighbors. Do I have to get a job? Because I am tired.

But then I sit here in my office at school, and see the frangipani tree blooming outside my window, and the football games going on behind it. In a few minutes I will go out to watch Lily's game, and I will see her play with girls she has grown up with, many of them with her skin tone and all of them with a million shared memories. I'll sit with the other moms and we'll cheer them on with the expanse of the Indian Ocean as our backdrop, sweating together underneath the wet-blanket of November mugginess.

I relish this place, this moment, this feeling. And I grieve.

Sure, this won't be my last football tournament. But next time it will be called soccer, and I'll be surrounded by people I don't know but who know each other and have their own sub-cultures and millions of shared memories that don't include me. I'll have Costco granola bars and fruit snacks in my bag instead of home-popped popcorn; I'll probably be wearing a jacket. I won't be known; I will be another new face, the one with the odd story of living half her life in Africa.

Everything is a Last this year. The last time I'll get to ignore Halloween. The last fourth Thursday in November that will be a work day; the last Thanksgiving I'll celebrate on a Sunday. The last time I'll hack up a pumpkin to make pie (because who wants to do that when you have Costco???). The last air conditioned Christmas.

Each day is a Last Day. I think of that often--Today is the last November 9th I will experience here. This week is our last Pamoja Week. Our last International Day will be this Friday. It will be Number 16 for us. How will I live my life without International Day? I guess the same way that I've lived sixteen Thanksgivings without celebrating on the fourth Thursday of November. Part of my heart has always been somewhere else. But I am used to that by now.

What's ironic is that in August of 2012, I wrote a post called "The Year of Lasts." It was the beginning of Gil's last year as chaplain at HOPAC. We knew we would be returning to Tanzania after a year, but our role at Haven of Peace Academy would be as parents only. After spending ten years of our lives breathing and bleeding HOPAC, we were moving on. I had no intention of returning to be on staff and I grieved leaving that life. Three years later, when the way opened widely for me to return, it totally took me by surprise. So in these Lasts, I rejoice in the icing on the cake--that I got to come back and work at HOPAC for three more years that I never thought I would get.

So I guess I need to be reminded that last is not always Last. Our God is surprising. After years and years of saying good-byes that I thought would be permanent--and weren't--I've learned instead to say, "See you later. The world is small."

There's a blessing, though, in knowing that each day is a Last. Many don't get that privilege--loss and change often come suddenly, without a chance to say good-bye, to finish well, to savor the Lasts. So the grief reminds me to slow down and savor what I do have today. Because that's how I should be living my life anyway.