21 December 2007

Shoeboxes Full of (bribes) Love

© Patrick LaMontagne, from Pursestrings.ca

It's Christmas time. So in that spirit, I've decided to post something relating to the holiday season. It's a topic I've been torn about for quite some time - two years, in fact.

A couple of years ago, we found out that my wife's church participates in the Operation Christmas Child (OCC) program run by the Christian aid organization Samaritan's Purse. In the OCC program, participants are given shoeboxes which they are to fill with toys, school supplies, toiletries, etc. and return them so they can be sent to children in poor nations for Christmas. I participated along with my wife; even I'm not so heartless and humanity-hating as to deny underprivileged children some good cheer.

However, as I studied up on the organization, I started to have doubts about them. As a Christian organization, I expect some proselytizing from them as they hand out the shoeboxes - who could blame them? - but the extent to which they seem to be balancing the proselytizing vs. the gift-giving seems way out of whack. I'll try to elaborate:

Remember the South Park episode where Starvin' Marvin's village is being "helped" by Christian missionaries? Remember how the missionaries wouldn't give them food until they'd read their bibles ("remember: reading Bible + accepting Jesus = food") and, when Marvin's people tried to escape to the idyllic planet of Marklar in an alien spaceship, the missionaries raised gobs of money to build their own interstellar cruiser to hunt them down and convert the whole of planet Marklar? Well, Samaritan's Purse is a lot like that, but without the spaceship.

Originally, I wanted to research Samaritan's Purse to see how effective of a charity it was. Did they put most of their money into their works or was much of it squandered on bureaucracy? Initial research indicated that, yes, Samaritan's Purse did spend most of their resources at the point of need, so that was good (4-star Charity Navigator rating). However, further research indicated that the money wasn't spent on need; it was spent on religious displays and trying to win converts.

According to an OCC worker named Victor Kulbich, "We shared the Gospel with them and distributed Bibles.... Each time we do a distribution, it begins with a testimony that Jesus loves you and died for you," and, along with the shoeboxes, copies of an evangelical booklet called "The Greatest Gift of All" are given to the children. Excerpts of this booklet can be seen here.

OCC also has an optional "kids colouring page" where the donor's children can colour-in a boat, a plane, a dog, etc, as well as fill in info like "My name is _____," "my favourite drink is ____," and "I love Jesus because _____."

Even in the OCC brochures, the emphasis isn't on the gifts. The only testimonial in this year's brochure is from a child in Nicargua, who wrote:
The gift box that I got touched me a lot because it included a letter and a picture of the child who sent me the gift. I'm now attending Bible classes, and I like them a lot. They teach me great things about God, how to love my enemies, how to study God's Word, and how to be obedient to God and give my whole like to Him.
As an atheist, it's a little disconcerting that this aid organization is as highly focused on proselytizing as it is; however, I can't really complain too loudly. Afterall, I was participating in this as a church activity. On the other hand, these people in public elementary schools in Alberta who were not informed that OCC was an evangelical enterprise have very good reason to be angry. Due to the uproar about this, since about 2003 the situation has been cleared up and OCC does not seem to be a factor in Alberta public schools anymore.

For their parts, the gift recipients in OCC (and their families) don't seem to mind the conversion attempts. They seem to be pretty happy to get whatever aid they can, and are willing to put up with evangelizing to get it. And Samaritan's Purse does provide much needed emergency aid in poor regions. It's not surprising that OCC ends up converting many people.

OCC has continued at the church this year. So as you can see, I'm presented with a dilemma:

Do I support force-fed God squawking or do I look like a total goob for shunning the poor children?

Of course, I chose the support of God: if I make myself the goob, I'd never hear the end of it.

But I can't be happy with this solution; I had to find some way to fight back in some little way. So far, I've tried to send the kids lots of education supplies and toys that will encourage their thinking and imagination. For instance, I gave one kid a toy space shuttle and a space-themed colouring book. Still there is only so much you can do to counteract the missionaries when all you've got to work with is a shoebox of stuff.

As one last "screw you" to the organizers of OCC, on the form that accompanies the shoebox submission, there's a checkbox that says "I will be praying for the success of Operation Christmas Child." I left that checkbox very much unchecked. Suck on that, OCC!

Seriously, though, I think a good response to evangelical efforts such as OCC is simply to do your part and give to secular aid organizations and charities. There are plenty that are similar to OCC listed here. For my part, the next day I bought a bunch of those Canadian Cancer Society lottery tickets (I consider it charity because I fully expect to win not one damn cent).

So, does anyone have any suggestions as to how I should handle this in the future?


Websites critical of OCC include Pursestrings.ca and Operation Christmas Child Alert, from which I found some of this information.

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At December 22, 2007 1:17 p.m., Blogger Matthew C. Keegan said...

Well, since you consider yourself to be an atheist, then why are you participating in a Christian program?

If what the OCC program represents disturbs you so much, there are plenty of other organizations who try to help children too without proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I think I would respect you more if you held to your beliefs instead of criticizing what you oppose. At least the Christians are putting their faith in action.

At December 22, 2007 5:25 p.m., Blogger langmann said...


Come check out my blog, I'll tell you what to do. Its interesting how we almost had the same idea on charity for a topic as well as the same disgust for these Big Business charities. http://www.clangmann.net

Anyhow my solution (which isn't my idea but what I am doing) is IMHO much more effective than the shoeboxes.

So my suggestion is to do what my blog says and scrap the box. Or do the box as well if you feel it will help.

At December 28, 2007 11:22 p.m., Blogger TheBrummell said...

I think I would respect you more if you held to your beliefs instead of criticizing what you oppose.

What an odd thing to say. Why should anyone refrain from citicizing that which they oppose?

And, what stops an Atheist (or anybody) from participating in a Christian program if they decide the benefits of said program outweigh the costs? Does being an Atheist require strict avoidance of all things remotely tainted by religion? That sounds distinctly like dogma to me.


I was particularly interested by the mention of Alberta public schools. I remember an occassion just before Christmas one year while I was in (public) high school in Calgary, so probably November or December of 1994 or 1995. We were invited to prepare shoeboxes similar to what you describe here; I don't recall the name of the organisation. The evangelical aspect was made clear from the start, though, and of course participation was completely voluntary. Because of the biblical additions to whatever I could provide, I chose not to participate, leading to some (rather mild) criticism from the more overtly Christian students in my classes.

In your situation, with your family connections to this Christian program, I'd probably do similar to you - in this case, the benefits (aid to needy children) probably do outweigh the costs (ignorant God-botherers in poor countries). There are worse things to be than a slightly-less-impoverished recent convert to Christianity, I'm sure.

At December 30, 2007 11:25 p.m., Blogger Carlo said...

Yeah, my gf and I generally check and make sure that the rare organization we support doles out the goods without requiring any sort of conversion stuff (not all religiously affiliated organizations are the same).

However, the one thing churches do (in addition to emphasizing mindless obedience) is provide some level of organization for these charity drives. Getting atheists together, as Dawkins says, is kind of like herding cats.

Not to sound like an asshole or anything, but I don't really donate any money to anything because I don't really make that much money to begin with (still being in school and all).

At January 03, 2008 1:08 p.m., Blogger Berlzebub said...

@Mr. Keegan:
Well, since you consider yourself to be an atheist, then why are you participating in a Christian program?
I "consider" myself to be an atheist, but I'm married to a Roman Catholic. What does that have to do with the price of tea in China? He was doing it to help those in need.

If what the OCC program represents disturbs you so much, there are plenty of other organizations who try to help children too without proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I would expect that there are several reasons that he did it. A few that come to mind...
1. It helps those in need.
2. He was able to be directly involved in what was sent.
3. His wife was involved in it, and even atheists are supportive of their spouses.

Of course, those are only the reasons that I would assume. KA might have others.

I think I would respect you more if you held to your beliefs instead of criticizing what you oppose.
And I would respect you more if you had said something positive about him helping others. Instead, you just criticized him for this post.

I believe he was holding to his beliefs. He was helping those who needed it. That he criticizes, in retrospect, has no bearing on what he did. Especially since it wasn't until later that he found out what the true intent of the program was.
At least the Christians are putting their faith in action.
They're also putting donations into action. They aren't just praying for those people to have more positive lives.

Also, what if there is a family in need, but they won't listen to the proselytizing? Does OCC turn them away? Would you be okay with a Christian charity doing that?

@ KA:
Techskeptic has a post on secular and atheist charities. UNICEF and Doctors without Borders might interest you.

At January 03, 2008 2:09 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Hey guys, thanks for the support. Matthew, I thought I made it pretty clear why I was participating in a Christian thing even though I'm not. Btw, I do actually find joy in giving toys and school supplies to needy children.

Langmann, thanks for the suggestion. Actually, I stumbled across your link the the charity thing a few days ago - that's interesting stuff. FYI - it's for giving loans to people in poor developing areas who are trying to set up small business enterprises for themselves. Kiva.org

Brummell, sounds like your shoeboxes were probably OCC as well. Glad they actually informed you about the religious aspect though.

Carlo, we won't pass judgment on you for not donating anything. I know I didn't donate much when I was in school. Money is nice to have. For my part, I'm just starting to think about charity stuff now after two years of work. I'm still not used to the whole "having money" thing.

Berlzebub, I did find anecdotes about needy people being turned away from OCC because they wouldn't accept the God stuff, but nothing concrete. There is nothing in the OCC official policy about only giving to those who accept Jesus. It may just be one or two super-devout volunteers who are like that.

At January 03, 2008 2:25 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Should be set up or expand in the comment above.

At January 04, 2008 12:32 a.m., Anonymous slut said...

There are plenty of secular organizations that help children and others in need. Why support one that proselytizes? I suggest UNICEF or CARE next year - they seem to be secular.

Look at it this way, you can't support them all, so you have to give your money where it will do the most good. Teaching children about some demi-god whose blood is washing their SINS away is not doing anyone any good, IMO. Better they should play with rocks and sticks.

At January 04, 2008 10:18 a.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

On further thought, this whole situation with the Christian proselytizing might be more neutral than I originally considered. The poor villagers likely have their own native religions, so they are just replacing one crazy religion with another.

At January 15, 2008 10:04 a.m., Blogger Mephitis said...

Can I suggest Oxfam Unwrapped, Aquabox or http://www.goodgifts.org/
as secular alternatives, next time?

I like the idea of giving a family a goat/means to purify water, etc etc: much more lasting and useful than a box of bits and bobs, that probably while nice to receive at the time, isn't offering anything more than a very temporary salve, and which comes with strings attached.

At January 15, 2008 10:28 a.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

More good charity advice, this time from Mephitis. Thanks!

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