The Saturday before Thanksgiving, John and I spent a couple of hours filling two shoeboxes with Christmas gifts for children who live in real poverty, at least as far as having things — the kind most of us cram into closets, drawers, and basements. Can anyone imagine the people of Ethiopia or Bangladesh wringing their hands over the problem of clutter?
We were taking part in Operation Christmas Child, which is an outreach of Samaritan’s Purse. This is a Christian organization, and the shoe-boxes include a religious pamphlet and the opportunity to participate in Sunday school. About six million shoe-boxes are packed each year by people like John and me, walking around a variety store trying to choose good things. I was particularly pleased at finding a dark-skinned doll with long hair, earrings and a real comb. I would have loved that doll when I was nine, although I might have cut off her hair in a beauty parlor experiment and been filled afterward with regret.
There are a number of websites bashing Operation Christmas Child as the contrivance of an Islamophobic, narrow-minded cult intent on stealing children away from the religion of their parents, using (God forbid) brightly colored toys and toothpaste. Reading some of this material, one has a sense of the trench-coated, candy-bearing man we were all warned in childhood to avoid.
Let’s not underestimate the intelligence of these children or their parents. Poverty may lead to desperation. It does not lead to stupidity. If I had a child to whom I could provide only the barest essentials, and a charity gave my child a stuffed animal, some socks, a washcloth and a tract about their religion, I’d be capable, I think, of saying: “Let’s read this booklet, or talk about what you’ve learned. Our family has different beliefs, but I’ll bet we can find ideas and practices we share.” Free thought is a fundamental right of humanity even under extreme circumstances. If you doubt it, read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
There are many charities, some backed by organized religions, some not. The Heifer Fund and Doctors Without Borders identify with no particular faith, only the desire to help those in need. Assuming responsible use of assets, is one group better or more honorable than another? I believe God is revealed in acts of true love, whatever the spiritual underpinning or absence of it, and I’m happy thinking of John’s and my shoe-boxes flying across the globe to children we’ll never meet. It makes the world somehow seem smaller and more intimate.