In recent years I’ve become skeptical of Operation Christmas Child. Every year in November there are blog posts that circulate arguing that they’re a bad idea for the sender (who spends a lot of money feeling like they’re making a difference in the world but maybe their time and money would be better spent elsewhere), the receiver (who often gets cheap toys that they sometimes don’t understand), and the community (whose local businesses might lose money because local families now don’t need to buy).
Every year I’ve agreed a little more.
But last year, on Facebook, I saw pictures of our churches in Mongolia distributing OCC boxes in their villages and in surrounding villages and wondered about its impact in Mongolia. Our local leadership seemed to think the boxes were a good idea and that it was worth their time to develop the relationship with Samaritan’s Purse, to go through the incredibly inefficient and time consuming process of getting 50-100 kids registered to receive them, to prep their buildings, invest in food and drink, and then dedicate a day or days to actually handing out the gifts. So I wanted to know why they thought it was worth it.
This year I got to attend one of the distributions. Here’s what I saw:
I watched as empowered and capable teenagers welcomed parents and brought them tea, led singing, and distributed the gifts to the kids. I watched as the assistant pastor (who is training to become the lead pastor of the church) welcomed families, doted on kids, and played guitar. I watched as the lead pastor (who has a full-time job in the city) talked about Jesus and gifts and shared the Gospel in a way that had parents and kids engaged and laughing. There was an invitation to return to church but no pressure to convert on the spot.
And then the kids got their gifts and I heard them excitedly share that they got a toy car, or play-doh, or a stuffed animal (the equivalent Ty stuffed animal would easily cost more than what their parents make in several days in the depressed mining town if they’re employed at all). I also watched as they pulled out crosswords in English and King James New Testaments that they can’t read (so they re-gifted them to me) and as the paddle boards with elastic strings and bouncy balls broke after 2 minutes.
I saw kids get socks in packs of six and wondered if they had ever owned so many socks before. Most of the families who received boxes live in traditional single room gers where families either share beds or sleep on the floor. All of their clothes can easily fit in one small wardrobe. Their gers are heated by coal which is probably dug illegally from the local mines that have been closed because there isn’t much coal and they’re too dangerous.
I watched a bunch of kids have fun, a bunch of parents have a pleasant outing with their kids, and I watched the church be the church.
Is OCC the most effective and efficient use of money in these communities? No, absolutely not. But would they get the money that was spent on OCC a different way? Probably not. Does it help givers become involved in Gospel work around the world? Indirectly, yes. Does it introduce people to the Gospel and to hope that can changer their lives. Yes, it does. Does it familiarize them with the staff at the church so they can begin to build positive transformation relationships. Yes. Does it show them the space where their kids could get enrolled in a warm, safe, after school program (which is at the end of it’s three years of grand funding….so if you’ve got any ideas how we can help make sure this continues, let me know). Absolutely.
These OCC boxes are a tool that the poor, local church can use to connect with their poor, local communities. It’s a fun day; a bright spot in the seemingly never-ending winter. While it’s inefficient, not a perfect model, and might not have the same impact everywhere, it’s something that God uses to bring hope and support the local church here in Mongolia.
If you choose to invest in OCC, thank you, you may have helped one of our churches this year. If you choose not to, especially because you believe it’s ineffective or inefficient, just make sure you’re investing somewhere that is more effective or more efficient…like the after school program that keeps kids warm, safe, fed, and loved 😉
P.S. I’m not sure if it’s true everywhere, but the boxes are definitely not distributed at Christmastime here. I’m sure there are several reasons why, but I’m guessing logistics plays a big role. When it boils down to it though, it really doesn’t matter. Christmas isn’t really celebrated here. Mongolia is beginning to adopt some Christmas traditions, like Christmas trees, but they’re a part of the New Year’s celebration here, not Christmas; they call them New Year’s trees. School and businesses are usually open on Christmas. Christmas has just never been part of its history…why would it be? This is been a Buddhist, Shamanistic, Atheist country for a long time. So, poor kids here don’t feel sad that they might not get Christmas gifts, rich kids don’t usually get them either 😉 But getting gifts is fun any time of the year.