This post was inspired by an article (link at the bottom) about Operation Christmas Child, by Samaritan’s Purse. I decided to expand it beyond OCC to a look at general gift donations. This is a ‘sorry, not sorry’ post. I mean, I know this is hard to hear. It is hard for me to write. I’m honestly kind of nervous to post it because I’m often afraid of American Christians. So, I’m sorry. Then again, I wrote it and I’m posting it, so I guess I’m not sorry.
When you give a gift to a child and his mother or father can’t afford to, you steal that parent’s dignity. What about, if you really must give a gift, provide a way for the actual parents to purchase that gift and give it themselves? You could subsidize local toys or candies. You could send money to another family (local or expat) in an area stricken by poverty so they could hire a poorer person and pay them well so that they could purchase gifts for their own children.
Stop making it about you. If your objection to the above suggestions is that this doesn’t expose the child receiving the gift to your generosity, you need to examine your heart. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (in 2017 we could say, don’t hashtag on Instagram what your right hand is doing). Why do you need to receive any acknowledgement, any glory, any honor? If it is truly about the poor, then make it truly about the poor and step aside. This could also be: stop making it about your kids…
There are other ways to teach your own children about generosity. I am tired of this excuse from American Christians when they are confronted with the uncomfortable reality that their charity might be damaging those they intend to serve. If you can’t think of any other way to teach your children to be generous, let me gently suggest a little creative thinking. How about being generous with a less well-off child in your child’s classroom? How about being generous with a newly arrived refugee family? And I don’t mean by simply giving them toys. I mean by inviting them into your home for dinner. Or driving them to the doctor’s office. How about being generous with siblings? How about being generous with wisdom and nuance? (Please go read Using Your Poor Kids to Teach My Rich Kids a Lesson)
Your gift might put undue future pressure on the family. One woman who received a box took the toothpaste out and didn’t want her son to have it. She said he would want it all the time, then, if he knew what it was and she couldn’t afford that. There are locally acceptable (and effective) methods for brushing teeth. How are poor families supposed to keep up this level of gifting year after year or for child after child?
Your box is not preaching the gospel message. If Jesus were Santa Claus, okay. But Jesus is not Santa Claus and his message is one of humility, poverty, sacrifice, and the cross. Not yo-yos and slinkies and candy. Do you really want the message to be: Have some M and M’s, have a pencil, have a t-shirt, have a side helping of religion? I know the argument that such and such a pastor used the boxes in this or that way. Yup, I’ve heard the stories and they are good stories, probably mostly true. But maybe the pastor could have used locally sourced toys that the parents were empowered to give with their own means.
Of course there are moving stories, I just don’t really believe them. I’m not saying the people telling the stories are lying. I’m just saying I’ve seen way too much context and have heard far too many stories shared without sufficient context, to take these stories at face value. I’ve heard stories spun and respun and re-respun, depending on who is listening and what the teller thinks they want to hear.
Kids love the gifts and ignore the message. As one person commented on my Facebook feed, kids suffer through the Jesus talk because they want the toys. What happens when someone else tries to tell them beautiful things about God, but has no toys to offer? To quote this person, “What we win them with is what we win them to.” If you want to project the idea that faith means getting toys, shoe boxes are a great way to do that. Making a kid happy is fine, just don’t pretend it is more than that. Otherwise, this is borderline scary manipulation.
Generosity is not about stuff. American Christians tend to act like what people need is more things. More toys, more shoes, more t-shirts. We limit our thinking about giving to a monetary thing, stemming from our consumer values and culture. But generosity needs to run so much deeper. Generosity is also about giving time, giving friendship, giving presence (not presents), giving dignity, giving emotional freedom, giving welcome, giving a lack of judgment, giving hope, giving trust, giving an experience, giving space.
People who aren’t in positions of power are not going to refuse you. Leaders in their communities, forward-thinkers, mightily effective people in their local context. These people are still not going to come to the behemoth that is American Christianity and say ‘no.’ It is almost impossible for those in a position of power, like Americans, to understand this. As one woman commented on my FB thread, “And although the pastor who facilitated the program (receiving shoeboxes) was one of the most forward thinking, well-educated and articulate pastors I’ve met – (ever!), he would not go to the organisation sending them, and say, “you know what, this isn’t really serving us.’ People who are not in a position of power rarely will refuse what is given to them, even it if doesn’t actually meet a need.”
Gifts can be damaging. You don’t want to hear this. Please hear it. Running team practices I’ve coached have dissolved into fist fights because American contractors passed out Gatorade, but not enough and too quickly for me to stop it. Also, they gave soccer balls to the running team. I had to confiscate the balls, pull kids off each other, cancel practice, and figure out an appropriate response to threats to rape the girls on the team because they were given something other kids weren’t. The contractors drove away just before the chaos ensued, with their iPhones full of photos and their hearts satisfied with the knowledge that they had been ‘generous.’ Thank you, thank you very much.
The things you give aren’t used for what you think they are used for. (This is not a story Samaritan’s Purse will post on their website, and it isn’t the only one of its kind): When Saddam Hussein was terrorizing the Kurds and pretty much anyone who didn’t agree with him, an American was in Baghdad meeting with the Minister of Health. The minister abruptly said “I have to go – do you want to come with me? I have to do something for our leader’s birthday.” The American goes with him. They go to a warehouse in Baghdad, and there sit piles and piles of Samaritan’s purse Christmas Shoe Boxes. The Minister of Health is supervising minions to deliver all of them to the Children’s Hospital as gifts from Uncle Saddam for his birthday….a bunch of Iraqi kids got wonderful gifts from Saddam by way of Franklin Graham at Samaritan’s Purse.
I’m asking you to be humble and teachable, I’m not asking for repentance. Sometimes when humans do something and love doing it and do it for years and later find out it might not be the best thing to have done, we are plagued by guilt. So plagued, in fact, that we refuse to admit it. The fear of being wrong or of having made a mistake, even with good intentions, is unbearable. So we press on. But let me be clear, I don’t believe it is ‘sin’ to pack a shoe box. Good grief. Everything isn’t so black and white. I just think we can do better. We all, I hope, are on a journey that will continue until we die, a journey of growth and change and learning. One of the awesome things about grace is that it exists! It is abundant and never-ending. May we never stagnate.
Please listen. Please, please, pretty please with a cherry on top, listen. I know the article criticizing Samaritan’s Purse (link below) comes off quite strong and isn’t perfect but to jump on the author’s use of the term ‘toxic charity’ as an excuse to ignore the argument is not okay. People who have experience are trying to talk about these things. People who live in areas where helping hurts are trying to talk about these things. I know it goes against the grain. We are a do-something people. People with bravado and gusto. Please listen to people who are saying something, even when it is uncomfortable for you or might suggest you change your behavior.
(a 14th thing, bonus, after reading other’s thoughts): How would you feel? Imagine someone from a different country comes into your neighborhood or your child’s school, you might not even be present. They hand out toys and cookies, nicer things than you have given your own children. Maybe iPads or video games or gift cards to Dairy Queen. Then they tell them about a different religion. Just think about how you would react.
People of faith are incredibly generous people and I am so thankful for the many ways we have been blessed by generosity, the many ways we have been challenged to be more generous ourselves – the kind of generosity that hurts, that costs something. Let’s press on together, being generous and being wise and growing in love and creativity.
Ten Alternatives to Christmas Shoe Boxes (this is a really good list)
Please, for the love, please, read this book: When Helping Hurts