About a week ago, I was sitting in our yearly charge conference. It’s the meeting where several United Methodist churches in the area get together to vote on a couple of key matters for the coming year. Each church decides on a new slate of committee members and how much the pastor will be paid. In addition, a representative from each congregation gives a brief report about the previous year’s ministry. It’s always fun to hear about everyone’s covered dish dinners, Bible studies, mission trips, youth groups, and choirs. Let’s face it; we all do basically the same stuff. We operate from the same United Methodist playbook. We like to pretend we’ve reinvented the wheel from year to year and our version of fried chicken is unlike any seen in the universe, but it’s all pretty similar.
As I listened, each church reported their participation in a single common project. No matter the size or location of the church, the speaker inevitably came to this topic, “And of course, we’re about to start collecting for the Samaritan’s Purse (Operation Christmas Child) shoeboxes this year.” They would go on to tell how many years they had collected American toys for African or Nepalese children and move on to the next item on their list of good works. (I should note here, whenever Methodists gather, we are big on ticking off lists of the good things we’ve done, especially in front of other Methodists. This applies to charge, annual, and general conferences. We like to remind people how awesome we are. I think we subconsciously believe we’re reminding Jesus how Christian we are. Methodists are not as Christian as we envision ourselves to be. In reality, we could work on being less awesome and more Christian. However, at such meetings, Wesleyan humility goes straight out the window.)
Collecting toys in shoe boxes for Samaritan’s Purse/Operation Christmas Child (next week being the nationally designated collection week) has become a reflexive activity for most United Methodist Churches. We just do it. We don’t think about what we’re doing. What could be wrong or theologically unsound about sending good toys to poor kids on the other side of the world?
Samaritan’s Purse is headed by Franklin Graham. Anything Franklin Graham touches is toxic. The man is a religious extremist, whose ideas run antithetical to our own United Methodist Social Principles and Jesus’ own teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. We do not need to bless him with any degree of religious legitimacy.
The shoeboxes are often full of inappropriate and unusable items. This is because Americans (or western Europeans) are choosing gifts they believe might “go well” for cultures and countries they know nothing about. As one missionary in Cambodia reported on receiving Samaritan’s Purse shoe boxes, “I’ve seen items like socks that are inappropriate for Cambodian weather and frequent flooding of the slum areas or worthless toys and trinkets.” Socks and toys seem like Christmas gifts, right? No. Couldn’t they have also received food? I can hear it now, “Honey, go down to the dollar store and get some cheap toys for those shoe boxes, you know those poor kids in Asia will love anything we send them. And we don’t want their feet to get cold.”
Shoeboxes do little to actually improve the quality of life of anyone who receives them. It makes us feel great. Methodists are hooked on dopamine and endorphins. We really feel like we’ve done something. But after it’s opened and the stuff inside has been shared, have you ever asked yourself about the long term impact of your gift? After the high fades and you’ve done your mission moment; have you made more trash for an African dump? What about those clothes you sent to Africa? Maybe there was a local clothes factory or merchant in Africa who needed to sell clothes locally in order to stay in business? With the cheap, third hand rags we’re shipping over, how’s that local merchant going to stay in business? It might be next to impossible. It sure felt great packing that shoe box, didn’t it.
We’re sending the message that in order to realize Christmas, you’ve got to experience Franklin Graham’s (and what we’re enabling Graham to export) vision of a middle-class evangelical Protestant American Christmas. This is wrong. This idea rests on the notion that Christmas isn’t Christmas unless there are gifts, tangible presents, and we can’t explain the gift of Jesus unless we do it through the giving of gifts. Jesus brings joy and love in ways that don’t involve shoeboxes or gifts or any kind. This is what we need to be talking about in our pulpits. We don’t need to be sending this same materialistic, prosperity-driven theological garbage to the developing world.
Are these shoeboxes really about bringing a bit of the Christmas spirit to the water laden sock children of Cambodia, the earthquake trinket wearing kids who freeze to death in earthquake rocked Nepal, or is it about evangelism? In order to appreciate the curriculum and material which arrives with the shoe boxes (the Greatest Journey), you have to learn the larger Christian narrative. Kids have enough going on in their lives to intermingle witnessing outside their own faith tradition with the receipt of a simple gift. Imagine the pressure the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim children who receive the shoeboxes will be under when they go home and become unwitting evangelists? When their Muslim parents discover the Christian themed materials, will Franklin swoop in and fly them to safety at his home in Boone, North Carolina? Nope. Will the well-intention United Methodists who packed the boxes ever hear of their charity gone awry? No. Will we keep bragging about all the good we’re doing? You know it.