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.


Marie-Louise Ritson said...

Hi Amy, we did the shoeboxes for a few years. My girls packed a box each. After reading your articles last year we decided not to do them this year and that we would 'sponsor a child' instead. I had a look at a few different organisations and googled a bit and I see there different ways of sponsoring and some of those have issues too. I'd like to find an Christian organisation where the money goes to the child's community rather than being specifically for that child only. Can you recommend any organisations that you think are good. Thanks. Marie-Louise

Amy Medina said...

Hi Marie-Louise! Thank you so much for taking this issue seriously! I think child sponsorship as a concept is great. I just can't give any solid advice on which organization to choose. Because we live in Tanzania, my family sponsors some kids directly, not through an organization, so I haven't done the research myself. If we were to go through an organization, I would probably choose Global Fingerprints because that's the organization run by EFCA (Evangelical Free Church of America), who we are associated with. I trust them. But I'm sure there are other great ones out there too.

Melissa said...

Marie, I’m sure that there are many other great organizations out there, but I live and work in Haiti now for Children of the Promise. Since I live here and take care of the kids in my home (foster care style instead of typical orphanage), I know our sponsorship program is legit. 😊. The money you donate goes directly towards the care of our children. If you are interested more in our family strengthening programs where the money goes towards keeping families together, that is possible as well, but we don’t have a sponsorship program set up for specific families. You can check more out at childrenofthepromise.org. And like I said, I’m sure there are more out there. I’m glad that you are looking seriously at how to beat support those in need.

Melissa said...

Amy, thanks once again for these. I’m sharing again even at the risk of the arguments that I know might come in the comments. 😊

Amy Medina said...

Oh! I also forgot--I also recommend Forever Angels Baby Home. It's where Lily and Johnny came from and is the BEST in orphan care, with a strong emphasis on reunification.

Unknown said...

I support Mission Guatemala. They are truly partners with the communities they serve. I traveled there to see them 1st hand, and helped with building la casa de maestro.

Unknown said...

I appreciate the insights that your unique perspective brings to this discussion. I know that anecdotal experiences should not sway an argument for or against an issue, but I thought I'd share our experience at least. It was through a shoebox about 7 years ago that we made contact with the girl who received it in Uganda. It is a unique situation in that she is at a Christian boarding school and we have the involvement of a local pastor who administers at the school. With the relationship that has developed over the years we have been able to sponsor the school fees for Jackline and her brother for several years as well as help to provide some aid to the Christian school. It has been a great blessing to our family to get to know the pastor and be a part of his ministry in Uganda. Whether the entire OCC operation should be abandoned, I don't know, but I thought I'd share a case where it has brought mutual good.

Unknown said...

Now we need an article about how to help a church end it's support of OCC because of the above reasons. Not being sarcastic. It's an issue when people are convinced it's the best thing of the season and canceling it would be a difficult notion to promote.

Africantim said...

Great article that hits many nerves. We also have stories of OCC abuse once the boxes arrive at their point of entry. We could just never get involved. We too have a small network of Children's Homes in Ivory Coast in West Africa. For people looking to help children, 100% of the money given to the Bethesda Homes, goes to the operation of the homes. Nothing is used for outside administration or fundraising. These costs are handled by other funding. You can give with confidence. www.TheBethesdaHomes.org

In the case of OCC, it could probably be "both,and". So much money is spent in overseas mission work that is hard to classify as "Missions" and in development projects that ultimately fail, I find it difficult to criticize. Just my 33 years of working cross-culturally speaking. ;-)

Amy Medina said...

Thanks for commenting, everyone!
Regarding the story of the connection with the little Ugandan girl--that's awesome! That's a wonderful story and I'm glad it turned into a sponsorship. But I would just turn that story into a plug for child sponsorship. :-)

And regarding convincing a church or school....Good luck. :-) But there are now a whole arsenal of blog posts to share--I link to them in my articles. The link at the bottom of this post (by the Samaritan's Purse employee) is the most powerful of all of them.

Unknown said...

I would like to recommend sponsoring a child at one of the Rafiki villages (there is one in Tanzania as well as 9 other African countries.) I've been involved with this ministry (Rafiki Foundation) for several years, spent 2 weeks last year at the Zambian village & was so impressed with what God is doing through them. Also, they have never borrowed money for any of their projects. I, too, have been ambivalent about the OCC project. I was very excited at one time, but lately have had some of the very questions & thoughts you mentioned. Thank you! Susan Peoples

Hamza said...

wow thats very nice post i really like it thanks for sharing and much appreciate your effort
Christmas Love Quotes

Unknown said...

Couple of thoughts...

No good deed goes unpunished.
There is so much need, despair, and sadness in the world. There is not a "one size fits all" solution. Do something. Don't criticize those who choose to do something different.

Amy Medina said...

I hear you. And I completely agree that there is no "one size fits all" solution....which is exactly why I'm bothered by the scale of the OCC ministry. Yes, it works great in some contexts, especially in places that are more westernized. But in many places, it does more harm than good. Shouldn't that matter to us? We need to be good stewards of the time and resources God has given us. I highly recommend that every American Christian read When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. It's a game changer.

Barbara H. said...

A friend of mine was on the OCC distribution team in Costa Rica. When they gave out the boxes, parents were invited to the gathering so it wouldn't like like they were trying to reach children behind the parents' backs. The gospel was presented, from creation and the fall right through to who Jesus is and how His death makes salvation available. Children are invited to a 12-week course of the "greatest Journey." OCC volunteers sat with the children, explained all of the contents of the boxes were for them, showed them how to work anything they didn't understand.

It sounds to me like the system works beautifully in some areas. The fact that it doesn't in other areas is no reasons to scrap the whole program or cast aspersions at to Samaritan's Purse's motives (your #6). Of course they should adjust their distributions to the places where it works best, but probably they don't know where it doesn't work until after the attempt.

Amy Medina said...


I understand where you are coming from. Please know that I didn't come to these conclusions lightly. This post is just one of several that look at the OCC ministry from a few different angles, and each time, my conclusion has been that most of the time, they hurt more than help.
For example, the most compelling argument against foreign gift giving was from a godly Tanzanian church planter, who has dealt with the negative repercussions of gift giving long after the cameras and the foreigners have left. I shared his thoughts here: https://gilandamy.blogspot.com/2018/03/opening-up-christmas-shoeboxes-what-do.html
Then there are also the eye-witness accounts of Shoeboxe distributions from missionaries all over the world, most of which are negative: https://gilandamy.blogspot.com/2018/03/sometimes-starfish-story-doesnt-work.html
Then there's also the detailed report of massive corruption surrounding OCC in Zambia: http://bushbabycolvin.blogspot.com/2018/10/pastors-response-re-occ.html
And a response from a Samaritan's Purse employee as to why OCC has covered up that scandal:

Of course, I'm sure God can still use this ministry for His glory--because I'm certain He does. But I wouldn't be speaking out if I wasn't convinced that this ministry causes more harm than good.