FOR many Christians, it is a familiar routine. As winter draws in, they collect a handful of toys, toiletries, and clothes and place them in a shoebox, before covering it in Christmas wrapping-paper and sending it overseas to bring festive joy to an unknown child. Since the idea of sending a Christmas shoebox was first dreamt up, more than a quarter of a century ago, hundreds of millions of children in almost every country on earth have received a box.
The concept was devised by a businessman in Wrexham, David Cooke, who had been brought up in the Exclusive Brethren. He had seen on television the desolate state of Romanian orphanages after the Iron Curtain came down. An aid convoy of trucks, filled with £60,000-worth of toys and the first gift-filled shoeboxes, departed for Romania on 12 December 1990.
Operation Christmas Child (OCC), as the charity he founded was known, was soon absorbed into the international Christian aid agency Samaritan’s Purse, which expanded it throughout Eastern Europe and then around the world.
Today, OCC says that 135 million shoeboxes have been delivered to children in more than 170 countries. The director of OCC in the UK, Nick Cole, said that the scheme had become a “global phenomenon. Last year, there were over 11 million boxes sent to 172 countries, including 908,000 done by the UK, the second-largest sending country after the United States.”
CHURCHES, charities, and even companies often act as collection points for shoeboxes; and at least one chain of shoe shops, ShoeZone, works with OCC to give empty boxes to donors, and collect completed boxes, too.
After a shoebox is filled with gifts, it is taken to one of 130 centres around the country, where hundreds of volunteers open them to check that the content is appropriate for where that box is going. Items such as chocolate, which will melt in some parts of the world, or plastic toy soldiers, which might upset refugee children or children in a conflict zone, are removed and replaced with more suitable gifts that have been donated by local businesses, Mr Cole says. “The stuff we remove we give to local charities or foodbanks.”
Samaritan’s Purse then ships the shoeboxes around the world to a network of about 60,000 churches.
It is because local Christians lead the distribution of the shoeboxes on the ground in each country that the project has been sustained for so long, Mr Cole says. The generosity of largely Western believers is used as a “tool for outreach into the community”.
ANY church, from any denomination, is welcome to join the network, after Samaritan’s Purse staff check that it shares the vision of OCC: “To bring hope and joy to children in need, but also to take the opportunity to share the wonderful message of Christian hope.”
It is this second part of the vision which sometimes causes concern. Mr Cole says that no Christian material is ever put inside the shoeboxes, and that they are always distributed unconditionally to those of all faiths and none.
Nonetheless, he is frank about what Samaritan’s Purse hopes to achieve through OCC. Children given a box are, where appropriate, invited on to a course, “The Greatest Journey”, run by a local church. It is a way for the shoebox recipients “to hear about the life and the claims of Jesus; so the kids can make up their own mind”, Mr Cole says. “There is no pressure, but it is an invitation and opportunity.”
The materials are always translated into local languages and led by indigenous churchpeople. “It’s a world of difference between a Western evangelistic tract and a local church doing mission and sharing their faith in their own context.”
NEVERTHELESS, the linking of Christmas gifts and evangelism is a cause for concern for some. After The Guardian reported in 2002 that OCC was failing to tell its volunteers and donors in the UK about the evangelistic side to its work, the Charity Commission contacted Samaritan’s Purse to inquire into how it fundraised and advertised itself.
For those who find OCC’s approach unpalatable, the British Humanist Association has a page on its website explaining alternative ways of giving a Christmas charity gift. Indeed, the shoebox model has spread beyond Samaritan’s Purse: many other charities, Christian and secular, have adopted the scheme. Smaller homelessness and youth charities working in Britain, as well as Rotary Clubs, also arrange Christmas shoeboxes.
Link to Hope, a Christian organisation that similarly began as an aid convoy to Romania in the early 1990s, now sends shoeboxes each Christmas to destinations throughout Eastern Europe. But its website is clear that this is not a mission activity, and it is stated explicitly, in its section of frequently asked questions, that no religious literature is included in the boxes, and that they are handed out with no strings attached.
The Trussell Trust, which co-ordinates the UK’s largest foodbank network, also runs projects in Eastern Europe, and has distributed Christmas shoeboxes for the past 15 years. Rich Parsons, who manages the scheme for the Trust, said that the 10,000 boxes sent each year were used to introduce marginalised communities to the Trust’s longer-term, year-round work, and to spread festive cheer.
“It’s definitely an expression of Christian love, and people want to give out of that motivation, but the Trussell Trust are not an evangelistic charity as such,” he said. “We are very careful about how we give out our boxes, with a no-strings policy.”
OTHER concerns surround the rapid proliferation of groups asking for Christmas donations. The Church of England’s national adviser for new religious movements and alternative spiritualities, Dr Anne Richards, has warned that fringe organisations have used Christmas charity appeals to raise funds illicitly.
“New religious movements often set up charities of one sort or another, and their intention is to fund themselves rather than to make donations,” Dr Richards said. “My advice is to always check out the provenance of any charity that is asking for a donation.” Groups often use Christian language and imagery, as it is a “trigger word for people’s good will”, and rely on donors’ not enquiring too deeply about the organisation.
Dr Richards urged those who were considering donating to a Christmas appeal, or filling a shoebox for an unfamiliar charity, to find out more, or contact her before proceeding. Her email address is email@example.com.
THIS message was echoed by both Samaritan’s Purse and the Trussell Trust. Mr Cole said that the idea of giving a poor child a Christmas gift was compelling, and, to avoid being taken advantage of, people should always do their “due diligence” on any charity that was asking for donations.
Mr Parsons said that, although he had not personally come across any unsuitable groups using Christmas appeals as a front, it was always important to check every charity to see how transparent it was about how gifts and money were distributed.
Another red flags is when items requested are unsuitable for the supposed recipients, Dr Richards says. This concern is shared by Primrose Peacock, who, as the founder of Friends of Albania, has spent decades bringing aid to Eastern Europe.
Many people had no idea what kind of gifts should be included in a shoebox, she said, especially if the recipient was an elderly person rather than a child. She had come across charities that suggested the inclusion of moisturising cream, wind chimes, and “lavender bags”, when what an impoverished widow would really want might include a cloth shopping-bag, potholder, or safety pins.
One charity, Smile International, has abandoned its 15-year-old shoebox project in favour of focusing resources on its core projects: feeding, training, and empowering people in the developing world. From this year, Smile International instead suggests that its supporters in Britain “sponsor a shoebox” by giving £10 to £50 so that overseas staff can buy cheaper and more culturally relevant gifts for children in their own country, and, in so doing, also boost the local economy.
BUT, Mr Cole said, OCC was not about the most efficient way to distribute resources, but an expression of generosity. “These are not aid packages: this a connection between the family and church which is sending, and the child overseas,” he said. “What we are giving is the opportunity for an individual to have a think about what they enjoy getting as Christmas gifts, and what would they like to give to a child overseas and bring them joy at Christmas.”
And, for all the concerns and even outright opposition the scheme engendered among some, he was enthusiastic about what it achieved each Christmas.
Every year, Samaritan’s Purse hears many tales of how children received shoeboxes filled with specific and unusual items, or a message from the donor which had touched them deeply. “Yes, it brings delight to the donor, but we hear story after story of where that is deeply appreciated at the other end.”
Once, he had been in a Central Asian country handing out boxes in a church that had been teaching children how to sew. Unknown to either the church or Samaritan’s Purse, the person who had put the boxes together had decided, unusually, to include cotton reels, which were perfect for helping the children to practise their sewing.
“That is one of those hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments,” Mr Cole said. “There are thousands of those stories. You can’t escape seeing how God has shown up in that connection. It happens too frequently.”