Every November, thousands of schools in Western countries take part in Operation Christmas Child, during which young children and their families are encouraged to pack shoeboxes with toys, personal hygiene items, and school supplies for less fortunate children around the world.
Since 1990, some 186 million children in more than 160 countries have received shoeboxes, according to Samaritan’s Purse, the US-based charity behind the initiative. In 2019 alone, the boxes were given to 10.5 million children in more than 100 countries.
For parents in a relatively wealthy consumer society such as the United Kingdom, having their children take part in such a seemingly generous and heart-warming program is a no-brainer. In the season of unbridled excess, it’s also an opportunity to make a virtuous, guilt-absolving gesture, and certainly not something to be investigated too deeply.
But few of the parents or schools that promote the program, let alone the children who take part in it, know that Operation Christmas Child is run by an organization rooted in America’s most fundamentalist Christian evangelistic tradition.
The president and chief executive of Samaritan’s Purse is Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, the prominent Christian evangelist who died in 2018.
It’s likely that, if program participants knew of the Graham family connection to Operation Christmas Child, many would feel uncomfortable being associated with an organization with views on a range of issues that seem anachronistic to mainstream Western sensibilities in the 21st century.
Examine the organization’s “Statement of Faith,” for example, and you’ll learn that “we believe God’s plan for human sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of marriage” and that “marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.”
Of course, there will be plenty who agree with that view.
But there’s a more problematic issue: Operation Christmas Child is a Trojan horse, an exercise in proselytism that has no qualms about “sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ” in Muslim-majority countries.
In the words of Franklin Graham, “Every shoebox represents an opportunity to reach one more child with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” But in the words of the UK’s National Secular Society, Operation Christmas Child is nothing less than “Christian fundamentalism, gift-wrapped.”
What parents aren’t told is what Operation Christmas Child tells its supporters: “The shoebox is just the beginning … one box can touch not just the child, but the whole family.”
After children receive their gift, they are given “the opportunity to enroll in The Greatest Journey – 12 fun and interactive Bible lessons, where they get the chance to discover who Jesus is and how to begin their own journey of faith.”
It isn’t clear at what point in those lessons the children get to learn that the “amazing love” on offer is apocalyptically conditional, as explained in the organization’s constitution, filed at the UK’s Company’s House.
“We believe,” it says, “that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that … God will reward the righteous with eternal life in heaven, and that he will banish the unrighteous to everlasting punishment in hell.”
It’s a sentiment that jars somewhat with the slo-mo videos on the Samaritan’s Purse website of happy little children in distant lands hugging their new teddy bears.
After their indoctrination course, children “graduate” and are given a certificate and a Bible in their own language. This, boasts Samaritan’s Purse, “has resulted in evangelism, discipleship, and multiplicationacross the world.”
But especially, it seems, in Muslim-majority countries.
Last year, according to the organization’s annual report, shoeboxes collected in the UK alone reached children in nine countries or regions: Central Asia, Belarus, Moldova, Serbia, Albania, Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Liberia, and Nigeria.
Muslims account for most of the population in Bosnia, Albania, and the overwhelmingly Islamic Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, while half the population of Nigeria follows Islam.
A spokeswoman for Samaritan’s Purse declined to be interviewed, but in a statement insisted that “everywhere we work, we follow the laws and respect the culture of the host countries.”
Samaritan’s Purse, she added, “does not insist that children are or become Christian in order to receive a shoebox” and “some places where shoeboxes are distributed have strict regulations on the distribution of Christian literature, thus keeping us from offering The Greatest Journey in those areas.”
The organization was, she said, “allowed to work in Muslim countries because they see the vital work we do and the love we show.”
However, she declined to say how permission was sought or granted, and in how many and which Islamic countries Samaritan’s Purse had been refused permission to operate. She also declined to reveal where the shoeboxes would be going this December, and how many of those countries were Islamic.
In an era of increasing tolerance of all faiths and lifestyle choices, Operation Christmas Child seems not only outmoded and disrespectful, but also reminiscent of a time when white missionaries, buoyed on the tide of imperialist expansion, felt entitled to travel to faraway countries and tell people that their faith and their way of life were all wrong.
Ironically, even as the missionaries of Samaritan’s Purse prepare to dispatch their little boxes, back in the UK, Christianity is shrinking. In November, the UK’s Office for National Statistics revealed that, for the first time, less than half the population of England and Wales describe themselves as Christian.
Perhaps Samaritan’s Purse would be better off proselytizing on the home front, or, at the very least, doing good without imposing its beliefs on others.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.