Every year we receive complaints from humanists and other members of the public that their workplaces, schools or other associations are collecting gifts for the evangelical US organisation Samaritan’s Purse. The gifts are distributed under the charity’s ‘Operation Christmas Child’ shoebox scheme.
Evangelical literature is given ‘alongside’ the boxes and in the UK this is often unbeknown to the donors or even to the organisers of collections at individual places of work or education. Local newspapers in particular seem to applaud local involvement in the scheme and uncritically promote Operation Christmas Child every year, despite widely available criticisms. See below for more detail on the criticisms levelled at the Operation Christmas Child shoebox scheme.
Having taken advice from aid-based development charities, Humanists UK thinks that shoebox schemes are a bad way to give aid. However well-meaning supporters of such schemes may be, the schemes are not good value for money, they waste resources, don’t meet local needs or help solve local problems, and don’t support the local economy.
Nonetheless, if your school insists on using such a scheme, Humanists UK recommends that concerned individuals draw attention to the evangelical nature of this appeal (which is not always evident and which people of other religions and none may prefer not to support) and suggest positive alternatives to their colleagues, teachers or bosses.
Though humanists object to the covert evangelising of Samaritan’s Purse, they do not object to giving. We have collected from Humanists UK members suggestions of more inclusive and secular charities that offer a direct alternative to the Samaritan’s Purse shoebox appeal. Charities working abroad usually prefer donations of money which they can spend locally, but some of these below do have the attraction of collecting things (particularly appealing to children and something the school may insist on). Others have very tangible ends, and some of them would make good gifts from one humanist to another.
Plan UK runs a range of projects to assist some of the world’s poorest children.
Via Oxfam, you can buy someone a flock of chickens or a camel, or textbooks or dinners for a third world school. For these and many other life-changing or life-saving gifts, see www.oxfamunwrapped.com.
Good Gifts is a means of getting suitable gifts to people who really need them, endorsed by a range of worthwhile charities. Buy a goat for Rwanda or a bicycle for a midwife in Cambodia, or help turn weapons of war into farm implements via www.goodgifts.org.
The environmentally conscious can adopt an animal from an endangered species via www.wwf.org or a whale or dolphin via www.wdcs.org. You can protect an acre of rainforest at www.worldlandtrust.org, or www.rainforestfoundationuk.org. Closer to home, you can sponsor a tree through www.woodland-trust.org.uk. All these send certificates to mark the gift.
There is, of course, Children in Need, which happens in November each year. Keep an eye on www.bbcchildreninneed.co.uk/ for this year’s appeal.
If you work or attend a school which is looking for an alternative, you might want to link your school with one in South Africa, Ghana, Uganda or Malawi! Visit www.lcdinternational.org/school-linking to find out more.
More good causes and charities that humanists might support are listed on another page on our website.
If the school insists on using gift boxes, one option is the shoebox scheme run by the Christian charity Link to Hope at www.linktohope.co.uk/shoebox-appeal because ‘they don’t place any literature in the boxes and promise not to discriminate in who the boxes are given to’.
The Aquabox scheme at www.aquabox.org is a popular charity amongst humanist groups and many schools. Welfare items from a recommended list are collected to fill a water treatment box, which costs £50.00. This then becomes a useful kit that can be sent quickly to disaster areas. Each box is numbered and linked to the donor, so that you can find out where your box went.
More details on criticism of the Samaritan’s Purse Shoebox Appeal
On the face of it, the Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child shoebox appeal is a benign initiative to give gifts to needy children at Christmas time. However, as is pointed out by Operation Christmas Child Alert,
Whilst American evangelicals are mostly aware of the evangelising purpose of OCC, this is not the case in the UK, where the presentation and information leaflets are quite different and the level of evangelism is downplayed in OCC’s presentation to the public.
The inclusion of Christian literature with the shoeboxes is something about which many well-intentioned donors in schools, workplaces and other organisations in the UK are unaware. Accordingly, Samaritan’s Purse is at best not being entirely truthful with the public, and at worst is guilty of perpetuating an underhand and manipulative form of evangelising children through toys.
Operation Christmas Child has responded to the controversy over the distribution of evangelical literature in or alongside the shoeboxes in the FAQ section of its website:
Do you put Christian literature into the shoeboxes before they are shipped?
No. We have never put Christian literature into shoeboxes before they are shipped, nor do we ever intend to do so. Where appropriate, the local church or Christian partner distributing the shoeboxes may include a free copy of a Christian booklet, The Greatest Gift, which contains Bible stories, including an explanation of the true meaning of Christmas. No-one is obliged to take this booklet. It is given to a child with their shoebox, not inside it; the only person opening shoeboxes after UK warehouse checks are completed is the child.
What is critical is what is omitted from this answer: whilst Operation Christmas Child may not put Christian literature into the shoeboxes, they do include it to be distributed alongside them. In this way, millions of disadvantaged children across hundreds of countries over many years have received evangelical Christian publications along with their shoeboxes of gifts.
Christian charities are, of course, entitled to seek to promote their faith. But it seems disingenuous, duplicitous even, to enlist the help of unwitting schoolchildren and parents eager to make a difference to people’s lives by supporting charitable causes, without being honest about the nature of that cause, and somewhat unscrupulous to seek to convert underprivileged children across the world to Christianity by means of supplying them with evangelising literature alongside Christmas gifts provided by individuals who don’t necessarily know about or agree with that literature.
Operation Christmas Child protests on the one hand that the evangelism is almost incidental, arguing that it has removed the missionary literature from the boxes themselves – now including it ‘alongside’ shoeboxes sent from the UK. But on the other hand, various pieces of correspondence and their continued downplaying of the missionary work indicate that the evangelical element, targeted quite specifically at non-Christian families for the purposes of conversion, is an ongoing and primary priority of Samaritan’s Purse.
Indeed this letter, documented on the Operation Christmas Child Alert website, from Samaritan’s Purse to a ‘concerned supporter’ of the programme, emphasises that the evangelical element remains crucial:
Please be assured that the commitment of Samaritan’s Purse to evangelism is as strong as ever.
[…] Samaritan’s Purse staff in the UK is dedicated, as we all are, to ensuring that Christian literature given by donors is used in effective ministry outreach to children through Operation Christmas Child.
The Gospel is also presented locally as part of the distribution of the gifts, and wherever possible children are offered a Gospel storybook written in their own language called ‘The Greatest Gift of All’. Many children are also invited to enrol in a 10-lesson follow-up Bible study programme, and upon completion receive a New Testament as a graduation gift.
In the United States, Christian literature remains inside the shoebox gifts given by donors. We are developing and implementing standard operating procedures to ensure that this practice is followed in the UK and other sending countries.
Opposition to Operation Christmas Child also comes from religious quarters. Church of England priest Dr Giles Fraser attacked the initiative in a 2003 piece for The Guardian, ‘The evangelicals who like to giftwrap Islamophobia’, pointing out that
‘what many parents and teachers don’t know is that behind Operation Christmas Child is the evangelical charity Samaritan’s Purse. Their aim is “the advancement of the Christian faith through educational projects through educational projects and the relief of poverty”. And a particularly toxic version of Christianity it is. […] It’s run by the Rev Franklin Graham – chosen by George Bush to deliver the prayers at his presidential inauguration – who has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion”. Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham, is from the same school of thought as General William Boykin, US deputy undersecretary of defence for intelligence, who described America as waging a holy war against “the idol” of Islam’s false god and “a guy called Satan” who “wants to destroy us as a Christian army”.’
All things considered, Operation Christmas Child is not altogether the benevolent, innocent and generous initiative that much of the UK public unknowingly believe it to be. Rather, it is a huge programme of Christian evangelising to disadvantaged and vulnerable children to which large numbers of British people contribute significant energy without understanding its true nature.
Humanists UK has regularly joined the criticism of Operation Christmas Child, issuing press releases on the subject and advice to members and supporters since 2002. Most recently, this took the form of a blog on our Humanist Life site, entitled ‘Why parents shouldn’t support Operation Christmas Child’. The pressure of our criticism prompted the Charity Commission to act in 2003 by investigating and eventually criticising Samaritan’s Purse.