|Me with our translator, Nastia|
I feel as if I have been propelled on a journey that started in November 2011 when I was first asked to travel with Operation Christmas Child to be part of and blog about a shoe box distribution abroad. Once the initial panic of just three weeks’ notice had dissipated I was so excited to take this journey, OCC is a charity I have supported for years and love the idea of, so why wouldn’t I do this? I soon realised the answer to this – there are so many people who are anti-OCC and they were not going to make my journey easy. The amount of negative comments I have received in the last year could have been seriously demotivating if I had allowed them to be.For one reason and another I did not take the journey last year but it was agreed I would join the OCC team this year, so I had lots of time to prepare and that was much better for me. If I’m honest I spent much of this year in a bit of a panic that I might not be able to offer OCC what they wanted from me. I was really conscious that as a charity they do not have money to waste and were putting a lot of faith in me to write their stories for the web and their publications. My trip to Ethiopia with the ONE Campaign helped to boast my confidence I could do this, but still the niggling doubt remained. Oh Michelle, ye of little faith!
As well as my own performance nerves there was of course the issue of controversy surrounding the fact that Samaritans Purse (the charity behind Operation Christmas Child) is an evangelical Christian charity. For me personally this does not present an issue, I’m a Christian and whilst I do not tend to label myself, by my very nature of being Christian I am called to Evangelise, all Christians are. However I know this is a massive issue for many people, in their words not mine – ‘shoebox gifts should be given without any strings attached’, ‘forced conversion to Christianity is wrong’ and ‘religion and charity should be kept separately’.I have to say that even as a Christian I agree with the first two statements, the gift should certainly be without strings and Christianity is all about free-will, so anything that goes against that is not right in my eyes. As for religion and charity being kept separate that one just makes me chuckle as charity is ingrained in the Christian faith, God calls us to love our neighbours as ourselves, which translates into what we nowadays call charity. If you check back so many of our well known charities today came about because of Christians.
What I saw and heard...
It was because I held these same views as the sceptics that I felt able to take this journey with OCC, and to blog honestly what about I saw and found out whilst I was in Belarus. I made a commitment that if I saw practices happening that made me uncomfortable I would pull away from OCC and not support them anymore. I’m pleased to say that is not at all necessary, I did not observe anything in Belarus that made me uncomfortable in the slightest and I do not think that is because it was set up to be that way, as I was able to talk to a British photographer who has taken trips with Samaritans Purse (both UK and USA) to 57 countries, many on more than one occasion.
What made it really interesting for me is that this photographer is a ‘life-long atheist’. He works with Samaritans Purse and OCC as he believes in the work they do but that does not mean he holds the same beliefs. I held my breath slightly as I asked him ‘had he ever witnessed anything that made him, as an atheist uncomfortable’ and he practically laughed at me, as if I was asking the strangest question. I explained that in the UK there are some people who do not believe in the good work that OCC does, that they feel it is misguided in its efforts and they believe OCC are travelling the world and forcing poor helpless children to become Christians. I told him some of the second-hand tales I have heard - of Muslim children being refused boxes, of children being frog-marched to bible classes and of children being made to pray a prayer of commitment before they are handed a shoebox gift.He told me he had frequently seen the ‘Greatest Gift’ leaflet given out alongside the boxes but that the children were free to bin them if they wanted, that he had seen children of all faiths and none being given boxes and that he had never witnessed anything that made him uncomfortable with the work that Samaritans Purse and OCC do. He talked about accompanying Samaritans Purse staff and volunteers to countries torn apart by war as part of their World Medical Mission, he witnessed esteemed surgeons pray over their patients and then perform specialist surgery to save their life (after being hacked apart by a machete) and they would then again pray with the patient afterwards. I specifically asked if they were making the patient pray as well and again I got the quizzical look that said ‘are you crazy?’, ‘no’ he said, ‘they just prayed for them’. He then explained that he had seen this open up a conversation as the patient would ask why they had done this for them and then yes they would tell them they felt compelled to do this work as it is what Christ requires.
Every shoe box is a gospel opportunity
For me this is where the biggest misunderstanding comes from, Christians understand that we do things as God requires us to, we are prepared to step outside our comfort zone in the name of our faith but people without that kind of faith do not understand that and are suspicious of it. The American website of OCC states that they see ‘every shoebox as a gospel opportunity’ and so do I. This does not mean I stood and preached to a child as I handed them their box but it means we showed them love in action as we handed over something that meant a lot to them and told them we feel compelled to show love in this way as Jesus loves us. If this initiates a natural sense of curiosity and they wish to find out more then so be it.I can sincerely tell you, hand on heart that I did not observe, nor hear anything that would make me cautious about working with OCC and I believe I say that as the Christian I now am and I could also happily say it as the non-believer I was ten years ago. What I learnt is that the shoebox makes the children smile at Christmastime and also opens a door for the local church to be able to work with the whole family all year round, not to convert them but to offer them a bathroom to use, a lift to a hospital, a hand with parenting, food to eat, friendship and to support them as they seek to give up an addition.
These are all things I heard whilst I was in Belarus. I ask you, honestly – would you say the local churches should stop providing those things? And no it is not with the condition that the children attend bible classes, this year for the very first time in Belarus they will trial out the ‘Greatest Journey’, a 12 part bible study for children and any child will be free to attend this. There is no requirement and in all the years that the boxes have been distributed in Belarus (well over 15) this has never been available before.So now you have read my expose what do you think? Do you still have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments and I endeavour to help.
Thanks for reading, Mich x
Disclosure: I travelled to Belarus as an expense paid guest of Samaritans Purse with the intention to collect stories from the children who receive shoeboxes and to help with the live web casts. Never did they place any conditions on what I might blog about whilst I travelled with them. The opinions expressed here are honest and my own.