Slowly pushing my red cart down the toy aisle, I scan the shelves crammed with Lego kits, Frozen dolls, Trolls dolls and all things Disney and Barbie. Glossy packaging, bright colors, hefty price tags shout: “Your kids can’t live without us! Buy us! Your kid deserves all of us for Christmas! The commercialism has once again infected the upcoming holidays. How easy it is for most middle-class Americans to whip out our plastic and purchase anything from that Frozen doll to a notebook to shampoo or toilet paper when a child living in a remote village in poverty on the other side of the world has no access any of that. Operation Christmas Child reminds us of this troubling reality and offers us a chance to make difference.
The ministry is called Operation Christmas Child (OCC), headed by Franklin Graham and part of the amazing umbrella ministry of Samaritan’s Purse. It started on the other side of the Atlantic, England, in 1990 by Dave and Jill Cooke. Three years later they merged into a partnership with Samaritan’s Purse, which allowed the shoebox ministry to expand to more than 28,000 children that year. Since 1993, OCC has delivered to more than 168 million children in more than 100 countries.
Anybody can volunteer in the extensive enterprise of Operation Christmas Child, and Heather Rowley is one such example, through Valley Evangelical Free Church. She got involved 23 years ago when her then pre-school aged son helped to pack a box at Des Moines Christian School. From there she sought a wider scale reach. Various families have kept OCC going at Valley Church for 20 years. Rowley took over for another volunteer, and eventually joined 14 other members to form the Central Iowa Team that keeps local churches and individuals involved. There are hundreds of these teams throughout this country. Part of her job now is to travel to various businesses in small town Iowa to pick up donations, in this case, 1200 baseball caps for a packing party. Donations from various businesses are given for packing parties. Valley Church, during a normal year, does approximately 2,200 boxes. The pandemic will definitely decrease that number, but Rowley isn’t sure yet to what extent.
Every box matters. Every small notebook, pen and pencil matters to break the cycle of poverty. In some countries, governments don’t subsidize school supplies. If a family can’t afford a calculator, pencils, paper or pens, the kids aren’t allowed to attend school. Socks are a welcome relief. Socks can prevent multiple pathogens from entering the body via the feet when most cannot afford them, let alone shoes. Soap. Can you imagine not having soap? A wash- cloth. A toothbrush. Consider the major improvement in dental health with just a toothbrush alone. Lives have been changed by the simple supplies in these shoeboxes
OCC uses the packed shoeboxes as a starting point from which to introduce the Gospel. The children don’t have to do or say anything to earn a shoebox. It’s simply an invitation, and then a discipleship program called “The Greatest Journey” is offered by trained volunteers where they learn about Christianity. After this discipleship program is completed, the children are honored for their hard work with a graduation ceremony. Unfortunately, some governments abroad do not allow OCC to distribute Gospel literature, but the shoebox alone can still bless children.
Rowley and her husband traveled to Ecuador in 2016 to observe hundreds of children receiving boxes and witness graduation ceremonies. “It was amazing. Most of the kids were overjoyed thinking that they get to pick just one item from a box. They were overwhelmed when they realized they were each gifted with everything in one shoebox!” And of course, spiritual warfare reared its ugly head and hissed. Another nearby church decided to schedule an event on the same day as the graduation ceremonies, and the children who attended were locked within the church. “Everyone knew what was going on, so we just had to wait it out. In that culture there is no rigid daily schedules. Eventually the children were released and then we simply started our ceremony at that point,” Rowley said.
“Being involved with OCC fulfills a calling on my life,” Rowley said. Years ago, she travelled to Uruguay to test out the possibility of being an overseas missionary. The experience wasn’t quite what she expected. “I never thought I would be able to be an international missionary. I’m not very cross-cultural. But OCC is a perfect way to remain involved with what is going on overseas without having to live there,” Rowley said.
Several churches within the Des Moines area and Iowa have sponsored OCC for years. Since moving to West Des Moines three years ago and having my own kids, I’ve been motivated to participate because Valley Church has made it easy and fun. Carefully selecting items to pack in a shoebox is not something I check off my “to- do” list of charities for Christmas and then pat myself on the back for my “generosity.” The process is a way of reminding myself of my entitlement issues as an American. I am blessed to be able to go to any drugstore or grocery store I want to purchase any hygiene product. I think nothing of it because of the abundance. But what if I was that kid in a war-torn country, or a remote village in the middle of no where, in poverty, and had no access to a toothbrush? A hairbrush? Soap? I cannot relate to a kid’s overwhelming gratitude over a simple toy, or a small notebook and pencil.
Most American children above age three are already so inundated by the notion that having more toys, or stuff, will bring them eternal happiness, thanks to our materialistic culture. Christmas Lists to Santa just perpetuates this greedy mindset. I want my heart to be full with gratitude and contentment this season this year, not longing for more stuff. My seven-year-old would not be happy with the selected gift items in these shoeboxes. In fact, he’d be convinced that Mommy and Daddy are keeping the rest of his gifts from him. My husband and I have our work cut out for us in scaling back entitlement. For the three years that I have packed an OCC box, I have prayed for wisdom and discernment to teach my kids (and myself) gratitude, and how to provide them with an understanding that not all children are growing up in the same circumstances. And of course, I pray for the child who will receive my box.
For some of us, the expense of buying all recommended items for a shoebox can be intimidating if we are living with a tight budget. It could cost anywhere from $40 to $80, depending on where you shop and what you buy. That’s why Valley Church created packing parties. Under normal circumstances, when there’s not a pandemic going on, you just show up. All supplies have been purchased/donated and organized. Last year (2019), it was assembly line style. You chose the gender and age of the child you wanted to serve and filled a box. You could pack as many boxes as you wanted. Year 2020, everything must done differently. Participants are asked drop off their packed box(es) at the Valley Community Center any day between 12-2 p.m. On Sunday, November 22, drop off your boxes from 5-7 p.m. Or, go the Operation Christmas Child web site and pack a box online. There’s still time! Pandemic or not, every box matters even more due to decreased participation.