Christmas, as an evangelical Christian in America is filled with certain images and activities that must go with the season, like, Nativity sets, with the wise men set an appropriate distance away, because we all know they didn’t show up at the stable, advent candles, Charlie Brown Christmas show and shoe boxes.  Yep, shoe boxes.  You can’t go into a church building or MOPs meeting this time of year without seeing the signs and tables set up to receive these shoe boxes.

“Operation Christmas Child” run by Samaritan’s Purse, has families, church groups, Sunday Schools and Bible Study groups, fill up a shoe box of small items for needy children in the third world.  Samaritan’s Purse then distributes these gifts on behalf of Christians in America.  Sounds wonderful, right?

Wrong.  This has got to be one of the most well-meaning, yet misguided attempts to help people in developing countries I’ve ever seen.  And, I’ve seen plenty.  Remind me to tell you the story of the great “used clothing distribution for poor Afghans” fiasco sometime.  Anyways.

What this is, first and foremost, is a first world solution to third world problems.  Have poor, hungry, sick, uneducated kids?  Let’s buy ’em stuff!  Let’s buy them cheap toys and pencils and maybe a toothbrush and lets spend millions of dollars sending, sorting and shipping this stuff to these poor kids.  We will feel great, because we spent a little bit of money and bought gifts for these poor kids.  Our kids got to help and so learned a great lesson in helping others!  Except, guess what?  Didn’t help a soul.  Didn’t do any actual good at all.  What it did do is waste a lot of resources and lets wealthy western Christians off the hook at doing the hard things, the less “feel-good” things that bring about real and lasting change for the world’s poor.

Even kids in the poorest countries, like Afghanistan, have access to cheap Chinese goods.  You can walk down the streets of a smallish Afghan town and buy plastic knock off Barbies, plastic guns and bouncy balls.  You can get pencils, toothbrushes at local pharmacies.  China is there already there folks and doing a great job at selling this stuff to the local populations.

The number one problem facing most children in the developing world is not a lack of toys.  It’s a lack of clean drinking water.  In Afghanistan, one in five children do not live to see their fifth birthday, and much of that is due to unclean water and lack of medical care.  Not as much fun to think about and you can’t go to Target, but how about, instead of Operation Christmas Child, you support Samaritan’s Purses’ water sanitation programs.  I have worked with some of SP’s water folk and they too are frustrated by all the resources, time and energy spent on these shoe boxes.

Afghan kids in sub-zero weather living in tents and with no shoes

The second reason these shoe boxes do more harm than good, is the perception of bribery.  In Muslim countries, when these shoe boxes are handed out, they are done so clearly in the name of Jesus and as being from churches in the west.  But, what most Muslims think is that these boxes of toys and gifts are a bribe, to seduce children away from their parents and to get them to convert to Christianity.  Some communities are suspicious and resentful of these gifts and it can and does put Christian aid workers in danger when they show up.

And, just in case you think I’m being a Grinch here, I’ve seen it in action.  I spent a cold winter in Northern Afghanistan sorting through a pile of Operation Christmas Child boxes, taking out crosses, Bibles (in English, for heaven’s sake!) and snow globes (really, what child, haunted by war and poverty needs a snow globe?).    I became convinced that this was a supreme waste of my time when I saw many of the contents of these boxes for sale in the local bazaar in the weeks following the distribution.  I wished the American church would do more of the hard things — like give away lots and lots of money and time and prayers that would directly benefit these folks.  I wished the Sunday School classes had taken the time to email me and ask, “hey, what sorts of things could we do that would be a help to the people?”  And I would have told them about Mr. Incredible’s water well projects, or the girls’ schools we were building, or my friend Lisa’s woman’s literacy classes.  All of which could have used some of the money that went into buying Barbie dolls, teddy bears and match box cars.

girls needing a school building

I’d love a discussion about this.  Agree?  Disagree?  Leave a comment and we’ll keep talking!