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Is Operation Christmas Child's shoebox campaign just a propaganda tool for Christianity?

Operation Chrismas Child asks children to "experience God's love through the power of simple shoe box gifts". But they are to charity what Femen are to feminism: superior, islamophobic, and seemingly unresponsive to the needs of those they claim to help.

A Christmas present being wrapped.
At first glance Operation Christmas Child seems simply delightful. Look closer, and it's not all it seems. Photo: Getty

Much as I’m loathe to conform to working mummy stereotypes I still have days when I’ve stepped straight out of an Allison Pearson novel. I arrive at the school gates, puffed up with pride that I’ve got the kids there at all, when I suddenly notice that everyone else’s child is dressed for World Book Day, or every other mother is carrying a PTA bake sale cake, or the teacher is collecting money for next week’s trip and no, I can’t pay by Visa. Once again, Mummy has messed up. Of course, I blame my entirely imaginary high-powered career and the fact that a woman can’t have it all (the suggestion that Mummy is just disorganised and needs a kick up the arse won’t cut it). Next time, though, it’s going to be different.

For the first time ever I am prepared for the upcoming school event. I know all about Shoebox Day. I’ve already got it scribbled on the calendar, having found the Operation Christmas Child leaflet stuffed into my eldest child’s book bag. In two weeks’ time my sons will be just like their classmates, each arriving at school with a Christmas shoebox to be given to “a poor child in Africa” (I tell my children it won’t necessarily be Africa and that not every child who lives there is poor. “Don’t be silly,” says my six-year-old. After all, he’s watched Comic Relief).

Of course, I must remember not to get so hung up on the day itself that I forget to purchase the gifts to put in said shoebox. These won’t just be any old gifts, either. There may be socks, and possibly a cuddly toy, and perhaps even a mini Connect Four. Most impressive of all, though, is the fact that my children will be giving the gift of Christ’s love (it’s amazing what you can fit in a Start-rite box these days).

At first glance Operation Christmas Child seems simply delightful. Christmas! Children! Toys! Sharing! Even if, like me, you’re flicking through the leaflet thinking “I wish they didn’t do gender segregated toy labels” and “isn’t this all rather patronising?” it feels churlish to criticise. Sure, world poverty won’t be eradicated by you stuffing Lego into a cardboard box, but this is for the children. What kind of smug liberal begrudges children a little Christmas cheer? What kind of privileged arse puts their precious principles ahead of a poor child’s laughter on Christmas day? It seems incredibly self-indulgent to take issue with a charity. However, at the risk of looking like a cross between the Modern Parents and Ebenezer Scrooge, the more I read about Operation Christmas Child, the more I find myself making an exception. 

Since 1995 Operation Christmas Child has been run by the evangelical organisation Samaritan’s Purse. You provide the shoe boxes and toys, and they make the deliveries. Oh, their church partners might just happen to drop in “a little booklet of Bible stories” or even “invite children receiving shoeboxes to join a discipleship course called The Greatest Journey.” The charity’s website boasts of bringing “the hope of Jesus Christ into the lives of over 100 million underprivileged children.” This might not sound too bad until you learn that Samaritan’s Purse is run by Rev Franklin Graham, a man who has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion”. OCC targets countries with large Muslim populations, with an aim to convert (they also adopt these tactics with Hindu communities). My children think they are sending toys who children who have none; what they’re actually doing is sending faith to children whose own beliefs are deemed not to measure up.    

My eldest child believes in God, although he also believes in Star Wars (he doesn’t, however, believe in the city of Birmingham, but that’s another story). I would find it hard to explain to him what I find wrong with OCC. Initially I thought it was merely the kind of casual, well-intentioned cultural imperialism you find in other western charity efforts such as Band Aid’s "Do they know it’s Christmas?", but it’s worse than that. Operation Chrismas Child are to charity what Femen are to feminism: superior, islamophobic, seemingly unresponsive to the needs of those they claim to help (although deep down, I suspect some members of Femen do care about feminism; I’m less sure anyone leading OCC really gives a toss about toys).

In 2003 the Guardian’s Giles Fraser launched a brilliant attack on OCC, highlighting the narcissism that lies at the heart of this approach to giving:

Schools and churches that are getting their children involved in Operation Christmas Child need to be aware of the agenda their participation is helping to promote. There is, of course, a huge emotional hit in wrapping up a shoebox for a Christmas child. But if we are to teach our children properly about giving, we must wean them off the feel-good factor.

I think he’s absolutely right. And yet ten years on I’m one of the many parents who’s gone ahead and written “Shoebox Day” on the calendar. I am hoping I can think of some clever ruse between now and then. Perhaps I shall mark our box “for the local children’s hospice” (though I’ve checked and it turns out they want money, not trinkets self-indulgently chosen by me and my children in order to give ourselves a warm feeling inside). Alternatively, I can always pretend to be Useless Mummy again. “The Shoebox? Argh! I forgot!” Then I’ll make it up to them by investing in a more ethical gift. See, I can be sneaky and manipulative, too, although not half as manipulative as those who exploit children to spread their prejudice.