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 two 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 recent doozies, 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.
In short, Graham is a complete embarrassment to those who claim the name of Jesus in particular and religion in general. He’s the poster child for everything that’s wrong with American Evangelicalism, and he should step down 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 ” political 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 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.”
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) 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.
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 Latino and African children the likes of which you might find in colonialist missionary hagiography or 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.
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, 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 keep the objects of his “compassion” at a bit more than arm’s length.
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.
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 nothing short of unconscionable. (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 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 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 who 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.”
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.
…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. 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 provide those experiencing poverty with things they actually need and teach their own children about generosity and global poverty at the same time.
By far food and clean drinking water are some of the largest global needs for those experiencing poverty. The Organization WaterIsLife has created a straw that, when used, purifies water in real time as you are using it, so clean water can be found anywhere. They not only provide these “temporary, life-saving water filtration straws for the immediate need,” but they are also “committed to developing community-driven initiatives that will continue to save thousands of lives for generations to come” (learn more here!).
Teaching families and small farmers how to sustainably farm and harvest their own food is also key. There are a huge number of organizations that do this in a variety of different ways, and this is not an exhaustive list. There may even be organizations that do the very same thing but in your own local community! Organizations like these focus on what is actually needed by the recipients of our charity, and not what makes us feel good to give.
And for a more hands-on approach with your children, the best thing you can do is get involved in local charities doing good in your community during the holidays. 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 it. Host a toy drive or a diaper drive for moms and dads 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 alone 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. Personally during the holidays, I donate financially to organizations I believe are doing justice work in the world, participate in drives and events at my church, and look for opportunities to include others in my celebrations who may not be welcome elsewhere.
And of course, if you are looking to do some good with the gifts you purchase for your own friends and family this year, please consider supporting Joelle’s organization, Badala. Badala employs women in Kenya and other parts of 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.
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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