Each and every year around this time, thousands of churches around the country participate in an organization called Operation Christmas Child. If you are unfamiliar with Operation Christmas Child, the gist is this: churches distribute pre-printed shoebox-sized cardboard boxes, which are then filled by families with toys, trinkets, and basic necessity items like toothbrushes and shipped off to children in non-first world countries so they can have something to open at Christmas time. Many churches I attended throughout my formative years participated in Operation Christmas Child, and many years my family and I dutifully picked up a few shoeboxes and went to the Dollar General in search of what we thought would bring poor children around the world happiness and joy.
Sounds great, right? Well, not so fast. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that are many, may reasons NOT to participate in Operation Christmas Child, and a many alternative organizations you can support that will offer you the opportunity to both truly help someone in need and teach your children about generosity and global poverty, all at the same time.
1. Supporting Operation Christmas Child means supporting the “ministry” of Franklin Graham. And Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, appears to be making a valiant attempt to go down in history as the Donald Trump of theology. His Facebook and Twitter feeds are a never-ending font of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic and otherwise bigoted vitriol. Most of what he has to say is so nonsensically hateful it doesn’t bear repeating, but those with strong stomachs can check out the screenshots below for just a brief sample of the type of violent theologies and ideologies perpetuated by Mr. Graham.
In short, Graham is a complete embarrassment to those who claim the name of Jesus, and he should be receiving intense spiritual and pastoral counseling—not the largest salary for the CEO of any relief charity based in the USA.
Now, for me, this is enough. I don’t want to support anything that furthers the influence of someone like Franklin Graham. But for others, they are willing to overlook Graham’s “shortcomings” because “it’s such a good ministry” and “it helps children.”
And that would be great. If it were actually true. However:
2. The children these shoeboxes are going to do not actually need the things they contain. In fact, in many cases, they do not even know what to do with them! Sure, toothbrushes and the like are universal necessities. But beyond that, many shoeboxes get filled with with cheap trinkets and toys that adults, let alone children, in these countries do not even know how to use. Joelle McNamara, a former classmate of mine and founder of Africa-based non-profit Badala, had this to say:
“Toys don’t play as large of a role in East African culture as it does ours, so there really isn’t any need to send them by the container full, because the actual result is comically anticlimactic: African kids trying to figure out what to do with American toys, and then adult African men trying to teach them what to do with them… Incorrectly! And don’t even get me started on the hair bows and headbands!”
Another friend of mine, Erin Tillson, says of her time as an MK in the Middle East and her experience with Operation Christmas Child there, that “they were more interested in doing something that made sense and felt good to Americans than being open to what would be culturally appropriate/meaningful to the recipients, including stretching the truth of groundwork to appeal to US donors.”
It may be fun to head to the Dollar Store or Toys R Us with your kids to fill up a box that you think will bless a less fortunate child overseas, but the reality is that most of the time, random toys are the last thing they really need.
3. It disrupts the local economy. If there is a toy shop, vendor, or maker in the area these shoeboxes are shipped to, he or she will be put completely out of business by sleek American toys with which they cannot compete. The demand is generally not high anyway, so boxes and boxes of toys spells certain disaster for their profits and their livelihood.
4. The shoeboxes themselves are both racist and sexist. The boxes handed out by churches come emblazoned with cartoon illustrations of barefoot Latino and African children the likes of which you might find in colonialist missionary hagiography or Party City Halloween catalogues.
The representations of black and brown children are especially peculiar considering Graham’s well-documented stance towards immigration. Earlier this year, Graham publicly called for a halt to all Muslim immigration, which means that if he had his way, many of the very children these shoeboxes are shipped to would be unable to come to America. It seems as though Graham prefers to outsource his charity.
Not only that, but each family that fills a shoebox is expected to select either a “girl” shoebox or a “boy” shoebox, and fill the box with toys that correspond to the appropriate gender. That there is such a thing as “boy” toys and “girl” toys is a core tenant of Graham’s conception of the gospel—evidenced by the fact that earlier this year, when Target stores decided to remove gendered labeling from their toy aisles as a result of this tweet my friend Abi sent, Graham called for Christians everywhere to boycott Target. “I have news for them and everyone else,” Graham said, “God created two different genders.” Graham went on to cite Matthew 19:4 as biblical justification for the boycott, and lamented the fact that they would no longer be using pink and blue colors to identify the sexes.
I certainly hope I don’t have to explain why both of these items are heavily problematic. The cartoon caricatures are extremely offensive in and of themselves; and forcing families to buy “boy” or “girl” toys constitutes not only total erasure of children who identify as LGBTQ, but also children who don’t conform to societal expectations of gendered interests.
5. It’s not just a charity—it’s an evangelism machine for conservative Christianity. Sure, you and your church may not include tracts or religious material along with the toys and toothbrushes you pack, but Operation Christmas Child absolutely does. And the literature they include is of Graham’s particular brand of Christianity—fundamentalist, conservative, and evangelical. In every country where it is legal, Operation Christmas Child adds tracts and religious material promoting their narrow theological perspective—that all those who do not believe as they do will be eternally, consciously tormented in hell forever by God. Operation Christmas Child administrators on the ground are also provided with followup material that children are pressured to participate in, where they can be further indoctrinated into exclusivistic evangelical theology. The absolute last thing this organization is interested in is “just giving a child Christmas presents,” and those who say so are simply burying their heads in the sand.
6. It encourages reliance on white people to solve problems. Joelle says,
“The way Operation Christmas Child is presented to kids is that these are gifts from your brothers and sisters overseas who love Jesus and love you, which sounds nice. But ultimately it perpetuates the damage that followed post-colonialism aid, which instills in children overseas from an early age that you need white people to give you things, and in our children, that the poor need our things. In mass and over time, it’s this ideology that actually make poor communities poorer.”
I don’t think there’s a better way I could say it than that.
7. It contributes to a culture of unexamined faith and half-hearted “justice.” I believe one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Christianity as I have known it in my lifetime is the lack of consistency when it comes to interrogating the ways in which our best of intentions actually contribute to greater injustice and suffering in the world.
Good intentions do not cover over a multitude of sins.
How many abusers have been enabled, victims have been silenced, violent ideologies have been perpetuated, injustices have been unchallenged, because we have been afraid to step on toes or hurt feelings or break with tradition? In the case of Operation Christmas Child…
…the influence of a theologically and spiritually violent man is being magnified.
…children living in poverty are receiving things that they do not need and which do not help them.
…privileged children are learning to assuage their guilt by shipping off boxes of trinkets and making no actual sacrifices in the service of justice.
As Joelle says,
“Generosity costs us something and it requires us to be mindful about what the recipient actually needs. The good Samaritan thought of everything the man needed at great personal expense, and not only financially. It cost the time that the Levite and Priest were unwilling to give and it took great humility.”
If you, your family, or your faith community are considering participating in Operation Christmas Child this year, I would strongly urge you to consider the cost your desire to do something “fun” for “a good cause” actually has in the world. Just because something is fun to do and appears on the surface to be beneficial, does not actually make it so.
Unfortunately, there are no organizations doing something similar to Operation Christmas Child but with a less theologically violent bent or headed up by a more compassionate and inclusive CEO. However, there are a multitude of options for families or churches who want to provide those living in poverty with things they actually need and teach their own children about generosity and global poverty at the same time.
Both Oxfam and Heifer International provide the opportunity to purchase a goat or other livestock for a family in need, which will in turn enable them to have a source of food and income for many months to come. Sure, it’s not as hands-on as filling a shoebox, but most of the kids I know would get SUPER excited about buying a goat for someone. Plus, it finally gives you a reason to use the goat emoji.
And of course, if you are looking to do some good with the gifts you purchase for your own friends and family, please consider supporting Joelle’s organization, Badala. Badala employs women in Africa so they are able to rise above poverty. They sell the products that they make, and the profits serve to help the women start businesses and educate orphans. Badala’s products can be found here, and they are seriously gorgeous besides being part of a lasting legacy of justice and empowerment.
I know it can be hard and uncomfortable to interrogate ourselves and our actions in this way, but it is absolutely necessary for the sake of the gospel that we do so. Coming to a heightened sense of awareness about bigotry and privilege ruins all kinds of fun childhood memories—hello, every Disney movie ever—but it is an absolutely crucial task for every person who claims to want to walk in the way of Jesus—ESPECIALLY for those churches and organizations that consider themselves to be “inclusive.”
I hope that this year as you seek to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God, you will carefully consider the options available to you and choose organizations and charities that do more good than harm and provide those in need with actual resources unburdened by exclusivistic theology and westernized, first-world notions of “justice.”
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: Administer true justice.” -the prophet Zechariah
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