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 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. In the three years since I originally published this piece, he formally endorsed Trump’s campaign for presidency and has spent a huge chunk of internet bandwidth defending the administration’s every horrifying move. 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 just to name a few doozies in recent years, Graham has called for Muslims to be barred from entering the United States, boldly proclaimed that the police-enforced lynching of black and brown men and women by the state is a result of their failure to comply with orders, led hundreds of thousands of followers in a boycott of Target not once but twice in an attempt to bully the company into conformity with his conservative gender roles and sexual ethic, and so many more—and much worse—things. He even went out of his way to defend Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a man credibly accused of attempted sexual assault, violent alcohol use, and participating in gang rape activities.
In short, Graham is a complete embarrassment to those who claim the name of Jesus in particular, religion in general, and basic human decency overall. He’s the poster child for everything that’s wrong with American Evangelicalism, and he should step down from his position of authority and receive 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 “bad behavior” because “it’s such a good ministry” and “it helps children.”
And that might be fine. If it were actually true. However:
2. The children these shoeboxes are going to do not actually need or have use for many of 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, easily breakable trinkets and toys that adults, let alone children, in these countries do not even know how to use. I have even heard stories of gloves, scarves, and hats being sent in boxes to children in countries where it never snows! Joelle McNamara, a former classmate of mine and founder of Kenya-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, 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 and meaningful to the recipients, including stretching the truth of groundwork to appeal to US donors.”
In 2019, a Twitter follower of mine Takondwa Semphere even shared her experience being on the receiving end of the boxes as a child:
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. Joelle also mentioned to me that it was her experience that if there is a toy shop, vendor, or maker in the area these shoeboxes are shipped to, they run the risk of being put out of business by sleek (and cheap) plastic American toys with which they cannot compete. And once again, the demand is generally not high anyway, so boxes and boxes of toys spells certain disaster for their profits and their livelihood. And it’s not just toys. As a general rule, mass dumps of Western goods into non-Western countries with struggling economies are never a good idea. (And this doesn’t even cover the harm done by continuing to distribute single-use and short term-use plastic waste all around the world during a time when plastic consumption is a contributing factor in both sea pollution and climate change. Yikes.)
4. The shoeboxes themselves are both racist and sexist. Not every shoebox that gets sent overseas by Operation Christmas Child is an official OCC box as many families and individuals simply use real shoeboxes from their homes, but the organization often does provide its partner churches and parachurch ministries with OCC-branded boxes that come emblazoned with cartoon illustrations of barefoot black and brown children the likes of which you might find in colonialist missionary hagiography or racist Party City Halloween catalogues. See for yourself: the picture below is a picture of an OCC box I took personally on my cell phone in December of 2015.
It may be that the designs of the shoeboxes change from year to year, but the fact that a team of designers ever greenlit the one above is unconscionable and betrays a lot about how they feel about the recipients of their charity.
The caricature-quality representations of black and brown children are especially peculiar considering Graham’s well-documented stance towards immigration. As I mentioned earlier, Graham has publicly called for a halt to all Muslim immigration more than once and has been utterly heartless in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. On November 20, 2019, Eric Metaxas, a Republican evangelical Christian author, posted this tweet and picture on Twitter:
In case you can’t read the titles of these “children’s” books that Metaxas has written, they feature a caveman cartoon of Donald Trump clad in an American flag loincloth and they are titled “Donald Drains the Swamp” and “Donald Builds the Wall.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, but I can’t stop thinking about what one of my friends shared with me on Facebook: “I asked my kid to imagine a child in Honduras getting a copy of Donald Builds the Wall in a Christmas Child box. He was horrified.” If Franklin Graham had his way, how many of the very children these shoeboxes are shipped to at Christmas to “show God’s love” would have the door slammed in their face if they wanted to enter the country? It seems as though Graham prefers to keep the objects of his “compassion” at a bit more than arm’s length.
Or, as Takondwa put it:
Additionally, 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. What exactly constitutes a “girl shoebox” or a “boy shoebox” I couldn’t tell you—but that such things exist is a core tenant of Graham’s conception of the gospel—evidenced by the aforementioned multiple Target boycotts, one when they decided to stop organizing their toy section by gender and another when they refused to jump on the transgender bathroom discrimination bandwagon. “I have news for them and everyone else,” Graham said, “God created two different genders.” In a truly baffling hermeneutical move, Graham went on to cite Matthew 19:4 as biblical justification for the boycott and continued his tradition of using the Bible as a blunt weapon to bludgeon people into submission to right-wing talking points.
Ah yes, the two genders: girl shoeboxes and boy shoeboxes.
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; the use of a “charity” to enforce Graham’s rigid conception of sex and gender (two concepts he repeatedly conflates despite having access to Google) is simply unacceptable. (This is NOT to say, as so many of my more conservative commenters love to accuse me of, that children in need would be offended by receiving traditionally gender-coded toys. It IS to say that Graham’s garbage theology about gender informs the Operation Christmas Child program and it’s something to be aware of.)
5. It’s not just a charity—it’s an evangelism machine for conservative Evangelical American Christianity. Sure, you and your church may not include tracts or religious material along with the toys and toothbrushes you pack (or maybe you do), 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. “Merry” Christmas, kids.
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, fundamentalist white Evangelical ideology. Operation Christmas Child is a well-oiled machine for a brand of religion built on colonialism, white supremacy, and American exceptionalism. The absolute last thing this organization is interested in is “just giving children Christmas presents,” and those who say so are simply burying their heads in the sand. And if you think telling kids many of whom don’t have their basic human needs met on a day to day basis that they’re going to burn alive forever in hell if they don’t “accept” white American Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior in exchange for a box of plastic toys is the “gospel,” I can’t help you.
6. It encourages reliance on white people to solve problems. Joelle also told me,
“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.”
Takondwa backed Joelle’s analysis up when she said:
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 violent and spiritually bankrupt man is being magnified.
…children living in poverty are receiving things that they do not need and which do not help them, including the theology of white American Evangelicalism.
…privileged children are learning to assuage their guilt by shipping off boxes of trinkets at Christmastime and making no actual sacrifices in the service of justice.
As Joelle told me,
“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. And at the end of the day, Operation Christmas Child is neither “fun” nor “a good cause”—it’s a whitewashed tomb of an organization, and any good it may or may not do in terms of relief or disaster aid is far outweighed by the toxicity of its core message.
Unfortunately, though there are plenty of relief or disaster organizations to support in place of Operation Christmas Child, when it comes to Christmas there aren’t a whole lot of organizations (at least in the United States) doing something similar but with a less theologically violent bent or headed up by a more compassionate and inclusive CEO. (If you know of any, I would love to hear about them!) However, there are a multitude of options for families or churches who want to make a difference in their community and in the world and teach their own children about generosity and poverty at the same time.
My biggest recommendation is to go local. Just like overseas, the people in your community are going to know what they need and how to get it better than people from outside the community. I live in Nashville, Tennessee, so this holiday season I’m planning on collecting winter outreach items for Open Table Nashville, a local interfaith non-profit that provides housing and resource navigation for folks experiencing homelessness. I used to work for them, so I know they’re the real deal and making a huge difference in people’s lives. A church community I’m connected to is also currently doing a food drive for Launch Pad, Nashville’s shelter system serving LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness—many of whom are experiencing homelessness because they were rejected by their Christian families because of their sexuality.
If you really want to move outside of your community, there’s a million and one causes you can get involved with at the holidays. Since publishing this post originally in 2015, I’ve updated it every year with new recommendations as I learn more about what is actually helpful. This year I decided to focus on the border crisis, hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, and the fact that Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water.
One of my favorite people on the internet Glennon Doyle regularly raises money to support family reunification on the border through her Together Rising Love Flash Mobs. Also check out Mijente, Movimiento Cosecha, RAICES, and Puente AZ. The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies is led by disabled people of color and is focusing on hurricane relief in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas that is accessible to all. In Flint, Michigan, Crossover Downtown Outreach Ministry helps with safe drinking water and lots of other essentials for the residents of Flint. Mari Copeny, AKA Little Miss Flint, also does incredible outreach and organizing work helping the people in her community and in other communities where access to clean drinking water is not guaranteed. She even has a Christmas wish list to help bring books to kids in Flint this year!
And like I said before, the best thing you can do to make a difference where you’re at and show your kids a hands-on approach to justice work is to get involved in local charities doing good right there in your community. Volunteer at the soup kitchen or at a homeless resource shelter. Ask your church what they’re doing during this season to help those in need in your town, and if they haven’t planned anything yet, take responsibility for organizing it. Host a diaper drive for parents who might be feeling their budgets stretch a little more tightly at Christmas. Collect gently used purses and fill them with gloves, scarves, hand sanitizer, lipstick, and feminine hygiene products to hand out to women who are experiencing homelessness. If it’s important to you or your family that purchasing toys specifically for children at the holidays be a part of your plan, I guarantee you there are plenty of organizations in your town that would happily take donations of toys for the families in your area that they serve. Just do something—and don’t outsource your charity in the style of Franklin Graham.
And of course, if you are looking to do some good with the gifts you purchase for your own friends and family this year, consider supporting Joelle’s organization, Badala. Badala’s products can be found here, and they are seriously gorgeous. There are also probably local holiday markets going on in your town. Nashville usually has one that supports our local Planned Parenthood each year, and I try to go since supporting reproductive justice is an important part of my faith. But even if it’s not supporting a particular cause you care about, shopping local is a great way to build into your community and make it a better place (and reduce waste from shipping!).
Listen. 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 Actual 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” or “progressive.”
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 violent, white supremacist 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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