Schools and individuals are already taking advantage of back-to-school sales to gather supplies for Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. While I think it is great to try to give extra joy to others, I want to write to urge people not to support this program.
Why? Let me count the reasons.
1) Each box is filled with different objects, some of which will not be culturally appropriate. Even presumably benign things like soap or toothpaste implies to people that we don’t think they can maintain adequate hygiene without our charity products. One blog has a description of children in a Cambodia being given socks that they can’t wear because of the heat and stuffed animals that make no sense to them because animals are what people eat, not cuddle.
2) Gift-giving is not a part of the Christmas traditions in many countries. In some where it is, people would be giving handmade gifts, or gifts carefully saved up for, yet the wonder of that gift could be pushed aside by the boxful of random goods. What does our giving them our purchased stuff do to their local traditions?
3) Recipient organizations are expected to pay a portion of the shipping costs, taking money that could be put towards other things and putting it towards what is often cheap irrelevant trinkets. Read about one Mexican organization’s experience. Even if they are not required to pay for shipping, money is raised by the idea it is bringing help for the people in poverty, when the real benefit is for the evangelical organization. Apparently one district in Uganda expelled the Samaritan’s Purse organization on the premise that they were “taking advantage of the problems in Karamoja region to solicit for funds from their donors and use the money for their selfish interests.”
4) Samaritan’s Purse prioritizes evangelism and conversion over helping people out of poverty. Read about their “work” in Haiti, or how they required earthquake victims to sit through a half hour prayer service before being instructed on how to build the emergency houses private and public donations had sent. Or read about how they compromised relief efforts in Indonesia after a tsunami by breaking the law against trying to convert Muslims. When evangelical Christians push their agenda of conversation in the aftermath of disasters, it takes money away from genuine relief work, and leads other nations to believe that westerners are deceptive, not genuinely out to help but rather to force our own viewpoints. Genuine aid may not be able to reach Muslim communities in the future, because evangelicals use disasters to push their religious beliefs.
5) The organization that ships them, Samaritan’s Purse, adds religious materials to the box and/or hands out religious material alongside. How would you feel about a religious group – other than your own – giving religious material directly to your children? It seems strange to me that I hear families who talk about how it should be the parents choice what to teach the child, who do not seem to mind that an organization pushes religious propaganda on other people’s children. There are also reports that in places children are denied a shoebox unless they bring a friend “to hear the story of Jesus.”
6) The organization that ships them, Samaritan’s Purse financially supports campaigns against marriage equality. For example, in April 2015 their webpage told about a bakery that is being sued for refusing to provide the same services to a lesbian couple that it provides for heterosexual couples. The lesbian couple had sued because their address had been leaked to the public and they had received death threats and other hate mail. Samaritan’s Purse highlighted the amount of money the bakery was going to have to pay and ask for donations, though it is unclear whether any of the donations collected through the site will actually go to the couple with the bakery, or in what way Samaritan’s Purse plans on helping them.
Supposedly Samaritan’s Purse has used its email list to encourage people to “stand with Chick-fil-A” when the restaurant was under criticism for taking an anti-gay marriage stance. The anti-homosexuality stance is bad enough in North America, but it is downright dangerous to be sending the organization toys with which they can win supporters in places where the potential death penalty for homosexuality is even the remotest possibility.
7) Samaritan’s Purse is inherently racist, and religiously intolerant, speaking disrespectfully of Islam and Hinduism. See the Innovative Minds report against Operation Christmas Child.
Franklin Graham uses hatred of Muslims as a way of doing business. Every time there is a kidnapping, beheading, or anything, he can use it as a fundraiser. Samaritan’s Purse was sued by a former aid worker. According to a Business Insurance article about it “Ms. Wagner accused Samaritan’s Purse of failing to adequately inform her of the threat, failing to properly train her, and of willfully ignoring the warning signs that kidnappings were a threat to foreigners within the Abu Ajura region.” They ignore warning signs on the ground where it matters, but they promote fear of Muslims in North America where they can translate that fear into donations and political policies they want.
Franklin Graham, leader of the organization, also promotes political nonsense saying that the “Muslim Brotherhood” have infiltrated the Obama administration and complained that the government has undermined the church’s role of giving to the poor by giving to the poor itself. In other words, he does not want government assistance available because he wants people to be dependant upon churches for assistance.
8) An article in the Guardian, by Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser, describes the problem this way: “US evangelicals employ a selective biblical literalism to support a theology that systematically confuses the kingdom of God with the US’s burgeoning empire. It is no coincidence that the mission fields most favoured by US evangelicals are also the targets of neo-conservative military ambition. To use Jesus as the rallying cry for a new imperialism is the most shameful reversal of all, for he was murdered by the forces of empire. The cross spoke of Roman power in just the way Black Hawk helicopters speak today of US power.”
9) Shoeboxes are an example of the type of charity focused more on the givers feelings than on the recipients. Glosswitch, a feminist columnist with the New Statesman describes it this way:
Perhaps I shall mark our box “for the local children’s hospice” (though I’ve checked and it turns out they want money, not trinkets self-indulgently chosen by me and my children in order to give ourselves a warm feeling inside).
There are many, many good alternatives to Operation Christmas Child.
Support smaller programs where the decisions about what is purchased are made on location. You might not get the shopping fun, but your donations will mean a lot more to the people who receive it.
One option is a group named Creation of Hope, based in Ontario and Kenya. You can donate to their general fund or give a directed donation towards things such as food, blankets, school uniforms, chickens, farm tools or solar lights. Some schools run fundraisers to donate to Creation of Hope and the organization ensures that 100% of the money raised goes to Kenya with no money for administration. You can read my blog post about Creation of Hope and you can read their webpage.
Ten Thousand Villages runs programs collecting school supplies for children in the developing world. Unlike Operation Christmas Child, they insist that each bag is filled with the same content to ensure that all the children receive appropriate supplies and they do not add religious materials.
If you want the fun of packing and choosing gifts, buy gifts for a local family in need. There are programs almost everywhere allowing people to sponsor local families. Your gifts will be so much more culturally appropriate for a family near to you than it would for a recipient of Operation Christmas Child. You could also check out groups like the Canadian shoebox program for that donates boxes to women living in women’s shelters.
For more information read this report (from a United Church perspective) or a British Humanist’s Report. This blog post was first written in November 2012, when I noticed that Operation Christmas Child was actually paying bloggers to write good things about them, and that spurred me to put together some of the thoughts and concerns I had heard about them. The post was adapted and expanded in September 2013, and July 2015.