16 Aug Operation Christmas Child: Good News. Great Joy.
by: Elaine Starner
We’re going where? We’re doing what?
This was not something he had expected. He looked around at other members of the group. Many of their faces also showed the same questions and confusion he felt.
They thought they were on a trip with Operation Christmas Child to help with the distribution of shoeboxes. As they began to learn about the three-day schedule planned for them, they were puzzled about this journey they kept hearing about. “TGJ?” The Greatest Journey? What was that? What did that have to do with shoeboxes for children?
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At the end of January, 2016, Marlin Miller, publisher of Just Plain Values, boarded a plane headed for Miami, Florida. He had been invited to go with Operation Christmas Child to distribute shoeboxes in the Dominican Republic, a country occupying the eastern part of the island of Hispanola. (The western part of the island is Haiti.) Most shoeboxes are distributed by local churches and ministries, but Operation Christmas Child periodically invites those who have partnered with them to participate in a vision trip, where the group helps with distribution and gets a glimpse of exactly what happens with the millions of gifts sent each year.
In Miami, Marlin joined with others from across the country who had been invited to join the Dominican Republic trip. The group included all types of people in varied businesses and vocations who assist in the many different phases of Operation Christmas Child. He met worship leaders, blue collar folks, filmmakers, the president of a freight company whose trucks carry the shoeboxes, realtors, the owner of a paper company, a representative from a giant toy company that donates hundreds of thousands of toy balls, and a young man from Pittsburgh whose company organizes churches to pack ten thousand shoeboxes in four hours.
“That was a big reason I so enjoyed the trip,” says Marlin. “To be able to see what all these people are doing and how everybody’s contributing. They’re just ordinary guys like us, but they use exactly where God has put them to be able to help the kids.”
Everyone had been invited so that they could see the end results of the countless hours, donations, work, and prayers that go into the packing and processing of these gift boxes.
It turns out, though, that handing a shoebox to a child is not the end result. Instead, for many it is the beginning—the beginning of a great journey. And as the group would learn that weekend in the Dominican Republic, one shoebox prompting a great journey is a thing that is happening millions of times over, around the world as seeds are sown for the Kingdom of God.
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This trip was the first time Marlin had traveled outside of the United States. From Miami, the group flew to Puerto Plata, a port city on the northern shore of the Dominican Republic. Their home base for the weekend would be a hotel in this city.
The group was divided into five teams of about a dozen people each, with each team accompanied by OCC staff members, a person from the National Leadership Team of the Dominican Republic, and two translators. The teams each attended two distributions on Friday and two on Saturday.
“Our team went to two distributions on a mountain, in really poor areas. Then we also went to two down in the city … in really, really poor areas.”
Although he thought he was prepared for it, Marlin was shocked by the poverty. “These people literally have nothing,” he says. It’s difficult for Americans to imagine a life where families have so little that they are unable to buy things like toothbrushes, socks, crayons, or pencils. But into those lives of poverty flies “Sam,” the flying shoebox, bringing gifts that make eyes shine with joy. With the shoebox carrying gifts from a stranger comes a message: This world was created by a God who loves you and cares about you. Operation Christmas Child has seen, over and over again, how God sends shoeboxes—often containing unique items—to the very children who need the contents.
Marlin tells the story of one boy who opened his shoebox to find a treasure—soft white socks. He ignored a toy truck also in the box, but held the cotton socks to his cheeks with a huge smile on his face. “Those socks were perfect. Nothing is ever done in vain for this mission. The Lord directs each and every box to the child that needs it. He uses things that seem insignificant things to us to impact little ones around the world for His glory.”
And that is the sole purpose of Operation Christmas Child—to impact little hearts with the message that God loves them. From the very beginning, Samaritan’s Purse has been involved in packing shoeboxes for relief with one mission at the forefront—to share the good news of the Gospel with children around the world. Along with a shoebox, every child is given a small booklet that tells the story of The Greatest Gift, how Jesus opened the way for us all to know God and love Him.
The shoeboxes provide a way for local churches to reach out to the community, knock on the doors of hearts, and tell the story of The Greatest Gift.
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In vivid contrast to the poverty, Marlin saw a wealth among Christians in the Dominican Republic that is too often lacking in churches in the United States. That richness was, as Marlin describes it, “an awesome joy and peace.”
In the churches this group visited, the people have practically nothing—according to worldly standards. “But they showed such peace and joy in their lives, it was unbelievable to me.” As Marlin stood in the back of one church and watched a simple program of singing that the children had prepared for the visitors, the beauty and purity of the joy he saw brought tears to his eyes.
“Compared to what we have, these people have nothing. They are so poor. And yet they have more peace, more grace, and more love … We can’t even shake a stick at it.”
After each distribution, the team met with the church’s pastor and prayed with him. In one of the mountain churches, when the team asked the pastor how they could pray for him, he only wanted prayer for his church. No, they said, You. How can we pray for you? The pastor would not give an answer. “Pray for the church. Pray for the church,” was all he would say.
God is using the shoeboxes, given from the hands of the local churches, to reach hearts. Marlin told the story of one little boy who came to the distribution in a most unusual way. He walked in, timid and fearful. Marlin noticed the little one’s anxiety and brought Ronny, the translator, over to talk with the boy. He was afraid, he said. And his stomach hurt. He didn’t know anyone, he told the adults, but his grandma had sent him there—as some sort of punishment! Ronny and Marlin prayed with the little boy and for his stomach ache, and Marlin made certain the little boy got a shoebox. In five minutes, the child was smiling and happy. Can you imagine the conversation with his grandmother when he went home that day?
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After distributions at churches on Friday and Saturday, the team looked forward to Sunday morning. They were scheduled to attend a first session of a class enrolled in The Greatest Journey. Finally, they would have more of their questions answered and learn what all this was about.
Samaritan’s Purse began distributing shoeboxes in 1993, when Franklin Graham received a call from a man in Britain who was looking for help in sending relief to children living in Bosnia, a country devastated by war. Over the years, as Operation Christmas Child grew and tens of thousands of shoeboxes were delivered, workers noticed that even after toys were broken and pencils were worn down to short nubs and socks had holes in them, many children still cherished that small booklet they had been given with the shoebox, the story of God’s greatest gift of love to the world.
While local churches told the Gospel story at distribution events and placed this booklet in the hands of children, they desired more material to follow up and teach young hearts and minds about Jesus and how to live for God. So Operation Christmas Child went to work and developed a 12-lesson Bible study that takes children from God’s creation of the world to the cross to the promise of heaven for those who believe in Jesus.
After shoeboxes have been distributed, children are invited to return to the church (or other meeting place) and enroll in The Greatest Journey class. Local teachers are trained by the National Leadership Team, and a 95-page booklet of Scripture lessons, stories, bright pictures, puzzles, and activities is used to teach children about God’s love for them and what it means to follow Jesus. The opening lesson is “The Great Creator”—and this is the first time many children have heard that God created the world and cares about its people. The second lesson is “The Greatest Problem,” the account of sin entering God’s creation. Then comes “The Great Savior.” More lessons include chapters on how God’s people live: trusting God, helping others, and loving others. One chapter teaches about heaven. “It literally takes them all through the Bible,” says Marlin. And each child also has an opportunity to make the decision to follow Jesus.
When the students finish the classes, the church holds a graduation ceremony. This is a huge deal for the children; most of them have never graduated, never received a certificate of any kind of achievement, and never had a Bible of their own. The graduation ceremony gives them all three. Their friends and family and neighbors are all invited to come; and so, more seeds of the Gospel are sown as more people hear about this greatest journey that anyone can undertake—the journey of a life that follows Jesus, the Great Savior and Son of the Great Creator.
These ceremonies often generate more interest in The Greatest Journey classes, and even more children ask to enroll to learn about the Bible, says Esther Troyer, coordinator for OCC’s Ohio East Area team. She had the privilege of attending a graduation ceremony on her trip to the Philippines. Afterward, she talked with a group of the girls who had just received their certificates and New Testaments. “I don’t know when I have seen eyes that sparkled so, and faces that shone like theirs. They exuded the love of God.”
These twelve classes take children into a deeper understanding of the Gospel and have changed many lives, not only of the children but of their families, neighbors, and even entire towns. Remember that Jesus talked of becoming like little children to enter the Kingdom; now, little children are reaching out and bringing others into the Kingdom.
Samaritan’s Purse published a “Special Report” on Operation Christmas Child 2015. In that publication, the story of Melvin illustrates the impact that the shoeboxes and the follow-up studies of The Greatest Journey classes have had on one town.
Eleven-year-old Melvin had received a shoebox at a distribution in his village. The pastor from another village had walked six hours to be at the distribution and to invite the children to begin The Greatest Journey classes the next week. Thirty of the village’s children returned for the first class, and Melvin was among them. It was the first time he had heard about God, and he responded immediately and gave his heart to Christ.
As Melvin learned more and more about living for God, his family and neighbors could see the change in his life. Melvin’s grandfather was the local witch doctor, and even he was affected by Melvin’s trust in God. When the grandfather became very sick, he could not heal himself. Instead, he asked Melvin to bring the pastor to pray for him, and, he added, “Just tell him to bring that Jesus with him. I want to know that Jesus.”
The witch doctor, too, began to follow Jesus. He offered a shed in his yard for the pastor to hold church. More of the children brought their families, and the church grew even larger. The village that once had no church or pastor or knowledge of God the Creator or Jesus the Savior now has a church, built on land donated by a neighbor. A leader in that church has said, “On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays the people used to meet to pray to their gods. Then the shoeboxes came and the Bible lessons were preached to the children in their homes. After about six months, the idol worship stopped. Now 100 people regularly attend the church.”
God is transforming communities through the lives of these children who come to believe in Him! It is happening around the world. In 2015, Samaritan’s Purse delivered 11,213,010 shoeboxes to children in 109 countries. Esther Troyer shared additional information about The Greatest Journey: since 2009 (the first year for the program), almost 400,000 local teachers have been trained, 7.5 million children enrolled in the classes, with 5.2 million graduating and 3.4 million indicating a decision to follow Christ. This year alone (2016), Operation Christmas Child will enroll 3.4 million more children in The Greatest Journey.
Those are amazing numbers; few of us can imagine what a crowd 3.4 million people would be. God is working in this world!
And yet, there is still far more to do. Not every child who receives a shoebox will have an opportunity to participate in The Greatest Journey. Funding for materials is still limited. Sometimes a trained teacher is not yet available. Many children cannot read, either because they are too young or, although they are older, they have not had the opportunity of going to school. (In many places, families must buy their own school supplies before the child can attend school. Thus, children are overjoyed to find pencils or other school necessities in their gift boxes, because this means they will be able to go to school.) Then, too, there are also locations where governments will allow the shoeboxes to be delivered but will not allow Bible classes to be held.
So for those who have a heart for the ministry of Operation Christmas Child and The Greatest Journey, here are ways to help:
How can it be that in seven short years, the Gospel has been spread through The Greatest Journey and touched millions and millions of lives, both of children and of their friends and families? That can happen only through prayer. How does just the right shoebox get into the hands of the one child who needs it most? Prayer for the boxes as they are packed and shipped. How do the hearts of children turn toward God? Prayer for those young hearts. How do local governments change their policy and allow Bible classes? Prayer. How do local pastors, who are just as trapped in poverty as the people they serve, keep on preaching and teaching the Word of God? Prayer for their perseverance. How are amazing amounts of shoeboxes packed and incredible funds raised? Prayer. “Nothing is accomplished without prayer,” says Esther Troyer.
Those who want to give financial support to The Greatest Journey can do so by mailing their contributions to Samaritan’s Purse, P.O. Box 3000, Boone, NC 26607, and designating it for The Greatest Journey. Cost for materials for one child to take the class is only $6. A commitment of $6 a month for one year will give 12 children the opportunity to attend these Bible classes. One-time gifts are equally welcome. Donations can also be made through the Samaritan’s Purse website at https://www.samaritanspurse.org/operation-christmas-child/the-greatest-journey/. Feel free to call them with questions at 828.262.1980.
Pack a shoebox! Those boxes open the doors of many hearts. If you’ve never packed a shoebox, Esther Troyer will be happy to send you information about what to pack. She can be contacted at 330.852.4039 or 330.204.1502. Or write to her at 2515 Winklepleck Rd NW, Sugarcreek, OH 44681.
Chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew recounts three of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom: the parables of the sown seed, the mustard seed, and the yeast. All three speak of one very small act that yields tremendous harvests. A shoebox, six dollars, and prayers—they’re all small seeds being sown for big harvests in the Kingdom.
As he boarded the plane to the Dominican Republic, Marlin Miller thought he was going to participate in experiences of giving and bringing some joy to little ones caught in poverty. He did that, but he was also given a glimpse of something much bigger than shoeboxes—an exciting and powerful thing that God is doing to bring souls into His Kingdom.
For those who also want a glimpse, the opportunity is here: Come to an Operation Christmas Child banquet at the Carlisle Inn in Walnut Creek, Ohio, on Saturday, September 17, 2016. Beginning at 6 p.m., the meal will be free, although donations are accepted. Donations will be used to cover the cost of the meals, and everything received above that cost will go directly to OCC, designated for The Greatest Journey. The speaker that evening will be Kojo, a young man from Ghana, Africa, who was a shoebox recipient and student in The Greatest Journey classes. He will tell the story of how The Greatest Gift has changed his life. Reservations for the evening must be made by September 9 by calling Betty at 330-852-4806.