This piece was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
￼￼￼￼We started packing shoeboxes when “He-who-is-now-taller-than-I” could fit his chunky-monkey baby legs through the slots in the front seat of the grocery cart, likely with one of those hypoallergenic seat covers. We would fill our box with necessities: toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, and such. Maybe some nifty socks or a hat. Of course, you had to have a coloring book, crayons, and some candy. Oh, and those Little Debbie Swiss Cake rolls. Oh, stink, they will melt in transit. Hmm. . . .
Eager participation in this far-reaching ministry was a no-brainer for me. Precious kids in need. Sharing the Gospel. Beautiful faces full of joy. No matter what, count me in. My boys can attest to the fact that, while I rail about the lack of anticipation (Hello, that’s what Advent means!) as we rush headlong into Christmas from Halloween, the only permissible mention of Christmas before December 1 is Operation Christmas Child. Period.
Operation Christmas Child (OCC), better known as “The Shoebox Ministry,” was birthed in Australia in 1990. Adopted in 1993 by Samaritan’s Purse (an international relief organization headed by Franklin Graham), the original recipients of gift-filled shoeboxes were Bosnian children whose families had been separated or destroyed by war. Twenty years later, over 113 million shoeboxes have been distributed to underprivileged children in more than 150 countries. Countless stories have been told about how these boxes, packed with love, prayer, and washcloths, have crossed international boundaries that have been closed to traditional missionaries for years. Pack-n-Pray.
As my boys have grown, they enjoy doing the shopping for their own boxes. Usually for a boy their age. They know the recipient best, right? I, of course, take the opportunity to get my “pink, purple, and glitter” fix and fill a box for a little girl. Hair bands, crayons, a pastel-colored tank top the size of a large hand-towel—yes, this is an unashamedly Princess Peach of a box. Some years, sweet friends have woven “band-o-looms” to include in the boxes or hand-made barrette-ribbon combos—so girly, so fun. Items that are so simple to make just might make a kiddo smile halfway across the world.
When the shoeboxes leave one of the eight processing centers based throughout the continental United States, they make their way via airplane, cargo ship, and various other types of ground transportation to more than 150 countries and territories around the globe. Boxes may travel to India, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Bosnia. Or they may end up in the hands of a young boy in the African nation of Ghana. A young boy who, by virtue of receiving this box, becomes convinced of the true Gift of Christmas. And ultimately makes his way to Jackson, Tennessee.
Twenty years after receiving that shoebox, Dr. Richard Addo sits in his office in Union University’s School of Pharmacy where he serves as an Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and winsomely recalls his Shoebox experience. The fifth child in a family of six, he was about fourteen when he accepted the box. Apparently, in Ghana they based your “eligibility” to receive a box on your height! They were delivered to his school and the students were told not to open the box until they got home. The delivering missionaries shared scripture with the kids and sang to the student body (Jesus loves me, this I know!) and home they went. With a promise to return that evening for a movie.
Richard says, “I was lucky enough to be born in a Christian home. My mother was a Christian all of her life—her father was a Presbyterian pastor. But my father was the sole Christian in his family. He had to get away from the other religious influences in his family.” Religiously speaking, Ghana is a rather diverse nation. During his growing up years, 12% of the Ghanaian population was Muslim while nearly 40% claimed “primitive traditionalist” (spirit and idol worship) as their religion. Christians represented about 40% of the national population, but the town in which Richard grew up, Sunyani, was predominantly Christian. Today, nearly 70% of the country’s population is Christian. “Ghana is blessed with beautiful natural resources; yet it is not overly developed or advanced. But Ghana has peace.” A peace that seems to be out of reach for its neighbors.
Walking home from school that day, barefooted, Richard eagerly anticipated opening his box. Simply receiving that box made him feel special. “I think that, by itself, is a great feeling for any child. It made me feel loved. It filled me with a sense of gratitude knowing that a stranger, a person that I had never met, never seen, would want a little boy in Ghana, thousands of miles away, to feel special and experience the joy of Christmas.” The smile on his face as he recalls that memory is sincere and bright. When you hear about Operation Christmas Child from a friend or watch a video, you get some sense of the contagious joy that sweeps over the children. But sitting across the desk from a man who actually opened that box and hearing those words of gratitude and awe does something to you. Indeed, it is a heart-full moment.￼
He opened the box to find a harmonica, a toy (which was his first ever), some pencils, and a book. But what stood out to him most was a pair of sneakers. Just his size. Little did the packer know, of course, that Richard had been walking to school—and doing everything else—barefooted. Most of his peers, if they received a pair of shoes (flip-flops are the coveted items), would wear them until they fell apart. And then the kids would do their best to repair them. Shoes were a luxury—not a necessity—in his world. One might get a new pair each year. Shocking to those of us who make a monthly run to Payless as our kids “grow through” sneakers like water through a sieve. Richard’s shoes had been worn through and through. After months of hard wear and tear, they were obliterated. And there in his box were those sneakers. “I finally said to myself, ‘I have received a gift from God for he alone knows my need,’” says Richard. He also knew, at that moment, that he wanted many other children to have that same experience in as much as he could provide for it through Operation Christmas Child. He was overjoyed.
We are again encouraged to remember that it is perfectly fine for the recipient to have no knowledge of the sender. Ultimately, it is the recognition of the Provider. For those of us who pack boxes, it is not necessary to be known. These tangible items demonstrate to each child that someone who doesn’t even know them cares for them and has prayed for them. They receive the Gospel in multiple ways and forms. And, just when you think you’re all nifty for packing the box, you receive the best of blessings.
What many folks don’t know is that in addition to the sundries and surprises that are tucked into the box, the gift of the Gospel is given. A book entitled “The Greatest Journey,” translated into their native tongue, provides the message of the Gospel through the study of God’s Word. Shoebox recipients participate in a program staffed by local Christians who teach the Truth alongside the children. Richard recalls that journey with appreciation—emphasizing the need for children to know God’s word. Fully and intimately.
In a recent visit to Ghana, he and his family saw the Shoebox legacy first-hand. There, in his sister’s home, were some Shoebox gifts. One item in particular—a game of UNO—had been included in the box. But his nephews didn’t know how to play—and not-so-coincidentally, the Addo family had neglect- ed to pack their own deck of UNO cards. So, there they sat in his sister’s home, his children teaching their cousins the rules of the game—a game they received from a Shoebox. And his children knew precisely from where the game had come. The power of a simple gift. And a teachable moment.
The truths I heard from Richard—the joy that is imparted by simple acts of kindness, and the recognition that God, in His mysterious ways, will meet the simplest need, and His Word will not return void are profound reminders of why we pack the boxes. It is a “means of sharing Christ with the world, especially in desolate places. . . . To me it is like a bridge that brings children from difficulty and darkness to light to know Jesus Christ. Giving them new hope . . . hope for life!”
Several years ago, OCC teamed up with Big Idea/Veggie Tales to produce a short film about the joy of giving, based on the story of St. Nicholas, the third-century Christian bishop who helped the needy. St. Nicholas epitomized Matthew 6—his acts of kindness and charity, at the time, were anonymous and discreet. He did nothing to call attention to himself. He wanted it that way.
Matthew West composed and performed the theme song for “St. Nicholas,” the Veggie version. The lyrics are simple—and powerful. It would be ever so easy to share the entire song. Truthfully, I find it challenging to select just one stanza; but I will give it my best effort.
For God so loved the world,
He gave His only son
So we could be His hands, His feet, His love.
Give this Christmas away
If there’s love in your heart
Don’t let it stay there.
Pack the Pops. Keep the Swiss Cake Rolls. Give this Christmas away. •
To learn more about Operation Christmas Child and to get involved, visit their website.
Wife, homeschooling mama, friend, and avid SEC football fan, Tracie Barnard has loved living in Jackson for six years.
Photography by Katie Howerton.