Reasons to NOT Support Operation Christmas Child

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OCC3Schools 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) 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.”

5) The organization that ships them, Samaritan’s Purse financially supports  campaigns against marriage equality. Supposedly Samaritan’s Purse has used its email list to encourage people to “stand with Chick-fil-Al” 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 possibily.

6) Samaritan’s Purse is inherently racist, and religiously intolerant, speaking disrespectfully of Islam and Hinduism. See the Innovative Minds report  against Operation Christmas Child.

7) 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.”

8) 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.

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30 thoughts on “Reasons to NOT Support Operation Christmas Child

  1. Thanks so much for writing about this.

    When I was 21, I spent 3 months in a very rural and remote area of India, and I brought a giant bag of donated toys with me from home (Australia). I was really embarrassed when I started giving the things out at a little school in a beggars’ village… the looks on the kids faces when I gave them the toys just said ‘What good is this?’ They had no use for fluffy toys. They needed food, medical supplies and clean water, but toys not so much. I also realised that the parents would feel the same way and that these useless little trinkets would be sold the next day to get money for food.

    In our culture, we think that toys are essential to a child’s well being but that actually isn’t true. They had never had them and they didn’t crave them. Promise. When they wanted to play they used their imaginations (sticks, dirt, old bicycle tyres… that sort of thing).

    I also took donated clothes so I hear what you are saying about cultural appropriateness. There was this cute little pair of girl’s boots which were totally inappropriate for a village where nobody wears shoes. In addition, the cost of sending these items is more than if you just gave them $2 to buy their own clothes in their own country (you have to consider all the taxes, plus the bogus taxes that every official wants to charge at each step!)

    Sorry I’ve gone on a little bit… I feel quite passionately about this!

    Teacher Kirra:Maestra Kirra

    • You child hater who cares if it has religious stuff involved you sick person are you saying that we shouldn’t give to kids in need who do you think you are some guy in america who is so high and mighty that anything with jesus on it is not legitamate

      • First of all, I’m not a guy in America, I’m a woman in Canada.
        Second, I never said that we shouldn’t give to kids in need. We should. We should just be selective about how we do it.
        Third, there are lots of things with that include Jesus that are legit. This one isn’t.

  2. Thanks for posting this! I want to organize an “Operation Shoebox”-type of activity for my preschooler (who I homeschool) and her playgroup, but I don’t agree with the religious ideology that is “presented” with the boxes. The alternate ideas for gift-giving are awesome, and your suggestion to give locally really resonates with me because I live in NYC and so many people have been affected by SuperStorm Sandy. You’ve inspired me to think beyond the shoebox!

  3. Good post! Thank you for considering the religious and cultural sensitivities of others. I come from a developing country so it wasn’t difficult to locate suitable beneficiaries — our 300+ boxes went to children living with their mothers in women’s prisons and women’s shelters, the urban poor, indigenous children living in settlements and refugee and undocumented migrant children. I assisted with a large scale shoebox project in my city in 2009 & 2010. We had a few basic rules: (i) No religious or evangelical items or literature; (ii) Nothing battery-operated — it’s bad for the environment, wasteful and rendered useless when the batteries run out; (iii) Nothing culturally inappropriate — nail varnish and lipstick are meant for adults, not little girls; (iii) No toy weapons or anything military-related (some of the children we work with are victims of trauma); (iv) nothing heavily scented or that could spill, because a soap bar in a box easily makes all the candy, cookies and everything else smell and taste of soap.
    We provided guidelines as to appropriate gifts — gender-neutral, school-related gifts are best because the children will need these items for school. Also, the school term in Malaysia starts in January, so giving out these boxes in December are entirely appropriate. The children and their parents were thrilled to receive boxes filled with standard-issue school notebooks and white socks, sturdy pencil cases, school supplies, handkerchiefs, eco-friendly reusable water bottles and food containers, arts and crafts materials, books, pocket dictionaries, band-aids and puzzles. The recipients and donors were all of different faiths and backgrounds and all benefited from the project. The added advantage for us was that we didn’t have to fly or ship all these packages abroad — needy children were all around us, and we just had to know where to look. Alternative beneficiaries could include women in shelters (give personal care products, handkerchiefs, coin purses, mints, etc), patients in public hospitals for low-income families (give personal care products, cheering comic books and magazines, mints, moisturizer, chapsticks, something colorful and decorative) and animals in shelters (dog and cat toys and treats).

  4. I completely disagree with your post. I agree that learning to give in any way is important and should not be disected and overthought as you seem to have done with the xmas boxes. I know many people who do not celebrate xmas but would not be offended if I bought them a xmas card.As well this is Canada and people should be more outraged by the fact that some public schools do not let children celebrate Halloween anymore for fear of offending some immigrant families. That is ludacris,let the kids have their boxes and be quiet.

    • Who decides when something is “overthought”? When the person comes to a conclusion different than you do? Or when the person has more information and you’d prefer not to have to look into anything?

      Why should we be outraged that Halloween isn’t always celebrated in schools? (And which schools are those? The ones where I am – in Ontario – do celebrate Halloween.) Are they worrried about “offending some immigrant families” or are they worked about building an inclusive school where they don’t teach children that other children’s values, fears and such are less important because those people weren’t born in Canada?

      Or are the schools making choices based on totally different things – like the increased sexualization and violence within Halloween costumes (now instead of buying a “witch’s costume” kids get to buy “sexy witches costumes”)?

      I live for a while in Quebec and was surprised my first Halloween there that no one came knocking on my door. People went only to the houses where there were decorations. I thought that was great – no pressure to participate in something you might not want to participate in but those who wanted to were still able to. Even if schools don’t celebrate Halloween, the parents can organize their own Halloween parties and celebrate with the children elsewhere.

  5. Thanks for your post Christy K… I completely agree. I think the Christmas Child program sounds good initially. Those who are providing the boxes really believe they are helping impoverished children. I think these boxes are doing more harm than good. I read through the Operation Christmas Child brochure… and it refers to native healers from Fiji as “witch doctors”. This shows a total lack of respect for native culture and tradition.

  6. Brilliant article! I initially liked the idea of Operation Christmas Child as a way for my kids to “give” back, but then I thought of the cultural implications, and then researched OCC further and was quite turned off by their philosophies and tactics. I tried looking up the Ten Thousand Villages donation program but didn’t find anything on the web. I’m in the US, and in a suburb without shelters, etc, so I’m looking for a project that we could mail. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks!

  7. Interesting article but I don’t think we really understand the situation of children in countries where Operation Christmas Child operates. I’ve just come back from a secular link between my town Pontypridd in South Wales and Mbale, Uganda. For as much as folk are going on about cultural sensitivity and what’s the use of sending toothpaste etc, it is really clear that kids love a gift. Simple as that. People in the West can quite rightly choose whether or not they wish to support this particular appeal but the reality for children in slums is that a glimmer of hope that they are remembered and cared for is a massive gift. I don’t feel that the type of gifts recommended by operation Christmas child leaflets are inappropriate or cheap trinkets, nor do I think that the scaremongering of your article about indoctrination by inclusion of Christian leaflets is in fact happening with boxes form the UK. I always thought that Operation Christmas Child actually started from my country in Wales, so the quote you use from Giles Fraser about US evangelicals seems a bit odd… Thanks for making me think, but in my country I really recommend using Operation Christmas Child for family and schools as just one of many ways of practical love. Peter

  8. Wow I am stunned to read this! I have to respectfully disagree. I’m not wanting to be argumentative, on your blog you may have your opinion. I cannot read this and not respond.
    Operation Christmas Child is a wonderful way to spread God’s love and share the gospel message – that Jesus died on cross for our sins, rose from the grave, reigns at God’s right hand in heaven, and will one day return to earth. It is run under the Billy Graham umbrella organization which is built according to the truth found the Bible.

    • In some ways you just made my point. You say Operation Christmas Child is a way of sharing the gospel message. If its that, people should know it is that so they can stop pretending that it is secular and that schools are justified in participating in the program.

      I don’t think it is a wonderful way to share the gospel message, because I think the message it sends is consumeristic and imperialistic. I think it says “our things are better than your things but if you follow our religion we’ll give you some too.”

      I don’t think that Billy Graham is in any slight way following Jesus’ teachings or the Bible, and I would encourage you to read more about the Bible from such sources as John Dominic Crossan or John Shelby Spong.

  9. I was really debating on whether to comment on this or not but felt I should express my opinion on the matter. Hope is what these children and their families need. The gospel gives that to people regardless of circumstance. These people often live in hopeless situations having endured things we cannot imagine. They need Jesus and the message of eternal salvation, a hope beyond this life and a promise of a God that loves and cares for them no matter what. It is the ultimate, everlasting gift. Operation Christmas Child is evangelism, but evangelism is an outreach of love to introduce people that have a diminished self worth to an everlasting, pure love. The peace that comes from Jesus transcends situations because even if this life never has much to offer, God does. People that are beaten and trampled down are rejuvenated knowing that God is with them. There are countless testimonies of the impact of Jesus Christ on people around the world. Unfortunately people in our own country do not know what it is like without Christ. We have no need for hope when we have everything we need or want. The value of the Gospel is lost. WE tend to value material things and therefore what is in the box has value to us whereas the message does not.

    • “Hope is what these children and their families need.” To an extent, I agree with that statement but then we’ll disagree on what hope is and whether the type of evangelism promoted by Operation Christmas Child can actually bring that. Suggesting that the problem faced by those in poverty is “diminished self worth” to be countered by the positive influence of religion suggests that poverty is a personal problem, rather than a systematic one, and that the solution is psychological/religious rather than political. They need hope, yes, but also justice, and justice does not come in shoeboxes or platitudes but in the dismantling of our systems of oppression.

      Your religious beliefs obviously mean a lot to you, and have been a positive influence on your life. Unfortunately religion has had a negative influence on many people’s lives too, and because of OCC’s links to particular types of evangelism, I am skeptical that it can convey a true message of love, unburdened by imperialistic overtones. Misguided evangelism is dangerous and hurtful.

  10. As a missionary working in Bible translation in a remote part of West Africa (though I do have some slow internet access!) I have to say I agree with you. As I just said to a friend of mine who shared your post on facebook, “Well, on the other end here in Africa I have to say that I haven’t been all that impressed with the shoebox thing. For a start, because we are far from the coast, people have to pay the in-country transport (over £50 for our church, which is about 2-months average wage!). Then either the presents are totally inappropriate, or get swiped off the kid by an older sibling or parent(!), or worse, get sold on the street the next day! So I’m like “nice idea, but in practice…!” But by the way, there isn’t religious material with all boxes … and what there is is in English, so totally incomprehensible to people here!”

    • I filter comments. It has nothing to do with tolerance and acceptance, it has to do with this being my blog. To paraphrase from my favorite book (Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austin) I tolerate folly and conceit on any other webpage on the internet but I must have my blog to myself. I’ll post comments I disagree with only when I have time to go through and explain why I disagree – and to be honest, not many people who comment disagree.

  11. Hope is what they need? What many or most of these folks need is safe and clean water, access to healthcare, sustainable food sources. Supporting organizations that provide people with these basic necessities makes sense. Sending these boxes, while they might make us feel good, does does make sense.
    Thanks for getting people thinking and talking about this Christy.

  12. For all of you people who are disagreeing with this post, the point of this blog is not that evangelism is not good, but that evangelism IN THIS FORM is dishonest, unproductive, and unhelpful. As the author points out, there are many other religious organizations who put their evangelism into constructive action, the one at the top of my list being Mennonite Central Committee and their kit programme. The other point is that because of how it markets itself, Operation Christmas Child comes across as a good secular way to “help” children in other parts of the world, and it has wormed its way into public schools and other organizations which are not religious organizations. So conceivably, you have Muslim, Hindu and families of other religions who are supporting an organization that is on public record as denouncing their faiths. My third point is that I have a lot of respect for Billy Graham. I believe, although I’m not 100% sure, that Samaritan’s Purse is not a Billy Graham organization, but is run by his son.

  13. Thank you for this post. It’s a brave and necessary thing to publicly criticize an organization that most people (usually out of ignorance) wouldn’t think twice about questioning. I see that you’re getting some slack for posting this, which is probably a result of people automatically getting defensive and not thinking beyond “BUT I HAVE GOOD INTENTIONS!” (Boo hoo. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing a good thing.) I first heard about Operation Christmas Child through a pen pal of mine. Knowing how I love to volunteer and just generally make a conscious effort to spread good cheer, she suggested I participate. After a quick Google search, I discovered that it is run by Samaritan’s Purse, which as you point out, is a Christian charity. I don’t donate to Christian charities (or any charity that is affiliated with a religion (unless donating money to the upkeep of my Unitarian Universalist church counts)). I later found out that a charity I volunteer with has had negative experiences with Operation Christmas Child. (I’m not sure if I should mention the name of the charity, as I am not an official representative). If I may be so bold as to say, I think the only thing you should add to this post is a recommendation that people do research before donating to any charity. Alas, the reality is that some (though certainly NOT all) charities do little, if any, good, and some even do harm. Again, thank you for this post..

  14. This Christmas I donated to small livestock project & food for children, for my two grandsons for Christmas. I requested 2 gift cards which I never received, & had to scramble at the last minute to find something as one grandson lives many miles away. Then I thought maybe It could be there birthday presents as both birthdays are in Feb. Today I received a receipt for my donation. That was it, no gift card. I have donated to Samaritans Purse for years, but it’s time to move on to something I can depend on. Living on a fixed income, I can’t afford to double gift..

  15. I am a follower of Christ and I have been researching on this shoebox matter. I did some study on how to help the poor without hurting them. I am feeling a lot of tension and lack of peace over how the Samaritan Purse functions. I have to agree with your post.

    We should take the comment from the African missionary seriously. We may be doing more harm to the poor with the Operation Christmas Child. I am so shocked to hear that the people receiving the gifts would have to pay money on their end!!! In Canada, each box requires a “donation” of $7, and that should cover all the admin and shipping costs. It is totally inappropriate for the poor to be burdened and harmed with those boxes. If you research further, you realize that the CEO made $421,198 in 2011. I believe there are better ways to help the poor without hurting them.

    http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=4423#.UvOr6vldXQg

  16. I have supported the Christmas box charity for some time, I always felt good about participating. This year though, I started to question the organization after I viewed images I found disturbing on a social media link. Children feigning ‘glee’ when opening a box of leftover New Year’s noise makers. I would personally deem these items useless to a needy child. I also saw video, discrediting the cultural practices and traditions of foreign lands. I didn’t get any kind of ‘feel good’ from these images. The fact that organizations receiving these Christmas boxes have to pay extra, when I have given $7.00 per box to cover expenses, just further adds to my dismay. I support Christian charity but not as a seemingly money making enterprise. Thank you for making me more aware of the inadequacies of this (in my opinion) less than Christian organization. I now realize that there are other organizations I can give to and I will share the my joy of giving with them.

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