One of my colleagues in ministry who has been very involved with the PWRDF youth council recently posted the following article on her facebook page, which raises some significant questions about Operation Christmas Child and the shoe-box charity programs that abound at this time of year. Another colleague in youth ministry replied to ask about ‘balanced perspective’ (are there any good news stories coming out of this project, from people who aren’t directly connected with the PR for the project?) or asking about what are the alternatives, if we decide not to support shoe box projects?
Shoe box charity is often chosen because it is quick, easy and does not take much effort (or education) on the part of the participating congregation. But is our participation actually doing more harm than good? What are other ways we can more thoughtfully (and reflectively) engage in supporting children and communities?
– the following is adapted from “Poor Children deserve a place at the table” Canada Dec 15, 2002 by John P. Asling In Catholic News Times (and can be found in the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund Youth Handbook)
The headline said it all: “A box full of joy.” But for whom? I know that the experience for many of the well-intentioned families filling boxes with gifts is, indeed, one of joy. But, without casting aspersions on the motives of these good people, I have to ask: will the colourful boxes truly bring joy to the children receiving them in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean or Asia? I don’t’ think so.
A former global missionary told a group of us a story when she returned from serving in Nicaragua a few years ago. One day, she arrived in Bluefields from her posting in Pearl Lagoon to witness a chaotic scene in a churchyard. A group of children were locked outside of the church gates (the gates were never shut) and were looking in on a select group inside of the gates opeing shoeboxes from North America. Harrison picks up the story: “Inside of the gates were more children, many more. These children were different from those outside of the gates as they each held a box – a shoebox wrapped in Christmas paper. I got a churchworker to let me in and I stood in the relative chaos: some children laughing, many upset, others beginning to cry, a few fighting over what was in their shoebox, a couple passing small items through the gates to little hands reaching in. “Many of the things in the boxes these children had never seen before, which added to the confusion. there were few adults to hide this experience. Adults, usually mothers, are busy finding and preparing food, washing and minding younger children.” Harrison then spoke to two local misisters who were tired and frustrated from the whole experience. The shoeboxes landed on their doorsteps and they were expected to take the time and the energy needed to distribute them in a fair way. An impossible task! Many cultures do not celebrate Christmas like us. In addition. there were no boxes coming to the poor community of Pearl Lagoon, “There would never be enough boxes for all the children. Was this what the children of Nicaragua needed for Christmas?” Harrison asked.
The experiences of people in churches and from other organizations doing solidarity work in places like Nicaragua have taught us a great deal about projects like the shoebox operations. We know, for example, that many cultures do not celebrate Christmas in the same way we do. To send North American glitter is to impose a kind of materialistic North American value on people. Of course, many recipients do not observe Christmas at all because they belong to other faiths that have their own celebrations. Some shoeboxes offer Christian materials meant to proselytize and many churches no longer deem this as appropriate (and yes, even if you didn’t put that in, once you send in a shoe box to a distribution centre, the proselytizing materials often get added in before it is shipped – surprised?). Some gifts or toys are culturally unacceptable. Toys that require batteries, for example, are useless in countries where batteries are unavailable or unaffordable.
The Rev. Janice Van Aertselaer of Saskatchewan (formerly of Kenya), said in a recent article, “there are many stories of some children receiving gifts while others look on longingly, and even some stories of communities fighting over gifts because there weren’t enough for everyone.” In addition, Van Aertselaer says that the shoebox operations are costly. Shipping, publicity and distribution costs could be better spent on helping recipients meet their basic needs: clean drinking water, food, heath care and education.
“It seems that this project is more effective at making us, as Canadians, feel good, than it is at meeting the real needs of children in other countries,” she said. The bottom line is that shoeboxes offer a great opportunity for people from wealthier countries to feel good about themselves, and very little for the many impoverished people in the Two-Thirds World. In fact, these efforts keep us from looking at the fundamental issues of justice, fairness and re-distribution of the world’s plentiful resources that are the only long-term answer for poor children here in Canada and in other parts of the world.
Shoeboxes are but another example of how we, in the wealthier world, are hooked on self-serving, short-sighted, individualistic, simplistic charity.’
What are your thoughts?