Let’s become critical thinkers about how and why and what we give (or, how to be generous without sending shoeboxes around the world…)
a guest post by Michelle Acker Perez
Every year during the advent season, Christians are presented with countless way to give. Traditionally one of the most popular ways is through Operation Christmas Child (OCC), a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse. Last year families in the US donated more than 8.8 million shoeboxes to ship to the global poor. Purchasing plastic toys, school supplies and toothbrushes to send to a child around the world feels good, but is it really the best way to help? OCC says their goal is to bring “joy and hope,” but as someone who lives in one of the countries that receives those shoeboxes, and is deeply invested in the long-term development of the majority world, programs like this often do more harm, than good in the long run.
Let’s start with a definition
When poverty is defined as problem or lack of material things, we ask, what can we buy to fix it? But maybe that is not the right question to be asking. In OCC’s promotional video they proudly share that “a shoebox puts a smile on a kid anywhere in the world” without any real acknowledgment of the complex cultural and economic systems at play in that country. Implied in OCC’s marketing and messaging is that YOU can make a child happy. It paints us as the generous hero, and the child in a faraway country, as the needy and grateful recipient. This message may be subtle, but it is a dangerous narrative to buy into, and unfortunately one that is historically rooted in evangelical church culture.
When the World Bank asked 60,000 people living in poverty around the world to describe “what is poverty?” 90% of the time they described an emotional or physiological feeling, not a lack of material things. What people mentioned was lacking dignity and not having enough opportunities. They said poverty was feeling like your voice didn’t matter, or worse, that they didn’t matter. They talked about feeling shame and embarrassment, not necessarily about needing stuff.
If children around the world really need tooth brushes, games and school supplies, wouldn’t it be more meaningful, empowering, and environmentally wise to let their parents choose those items from local stores? In the process of trying to be “generous,” are we only perpetuating an unhealthy power and hierarchy that says we know what is best for you or your child?
For a moment, let’s imagine the roles were reversed. How would you feel if a foreign group of people, from a different country and a different religion sent YOUR child a box to open at their school or Sunday school classroom without your permission or foreknowledge of what was inside? We all know this wouldn’t happen in the US for a variety of reasons. But the question remains, what gives us the power or authority to think that we can do it to children in other countries? I am not saying let’s stop giving or not be generous this Christmas season, but I am advocating that we think critically about how and why we are generous.
Alternative ways to be a Generous Giver
Being generous, is not synonymous with buying stuff, especially when you’re buying stuff to ship around the globe. What if instead we asked ourselves what do we need to give up this holiday season? What action do we need to take so that my neighbor, down the street or around the world, has a better quality of life? What if the church listened to local leaders first, and supported their endeavors? Sometimes being generous starts with giving our time, energy and mind to learn and listen to others first.
Before your church or school stuffs shoe boxes again to ship around the world consider doing some of these things:
If You want to Learn More
-watch this documentary to understand why non-profits and aide organizations are responding to the world’s developmental needs with a disaster relief model and how it’s crippling local economies and jobs.
-Widen your circle and the voices you listen to in real life and on social media. Intentionally follow people who are different from you, especially BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) and organizations in countries outside the US. Check out Be The Bridge, Homeboy Industries, The Global Immersion Project, or Mama Hope as a place to start.
If you want to Give Your Time :
– Ask yourself who can you be invested in for the long term? Shannon Martin, author and advocate, often challenges people to ask if this a one-time “pious project or a long term relationship.” Maintaining a long-term relationship with an individual or an organization is a lot harder than doing a one-time a year gift.
-Ask local leaders of NGOs what their real needs and dreams are. Listen well. Ask how can you support them. And it might not be by buying Christmas gifts. Maybe they will need time spent cleaning out linen closets, repairing computers, or reading to kids in the afternoon.
-If you’re looking for something particularly Christmas-y to do, visit a local retirement center with your family or small group. Spend time singing and simply being present with elderly neighbors. Maybe make it a weekly or monthly thing. Giving your time and your presence.
If You Want to Buy Something :
-If buying and giving gifts is really your jam, ask a local school teacher, maybe one who is teaching in a lower-performing school, if his or her class has a wish list? Consider buying a few things from that list, and then let the teacher pass it out.
– If buying an end of the year gift is important to you or your family, consider giving toward organizations where local leaders are thinking about long-term suitability and giving agency and ownerships to the receivers. Organizations like Preventive Love and Heifer International have programs where families receive livestock or animal feed to provide them with food security, and the ability to decide how they manage those crops and livestock. Preemptive Love even explains on their website that “the families [they] serve— know best what they need to thrive.”
Becoming Critical Thinkers Without having Critical Heart
Remember those 8.8 million people who filled shoeboxes for the kids around the globe? What if even half of that number of people invited an immigrant family over for dinner, or dropped off a gift card at World Relief for one of the 20,000 refugees who will be resettled into the US this year. I am not doubting that kids who receive those shoeboxes will not feel happy, but I am asking us think critically about how and why we give. So this advent, let’s re-think the ways we are generous. Let’s listen to local leaders, get rid of the hero complex, and find ways to honor and respect the humanity of other people. Maybe our goal, as Sarah Bessey, says is to ”learn how to be a critical thinker, without having a critical heart.”
Michelle is originally from California, but has called Guatemala home for 8 years. A former Special Ed teacher who now splits her time between the non-profit world and raising two bicultural kids. She and her husband co-lead a non-profit, where they partner with rural Guatemalan communities to bring about holistic development. Michelle writes about the intersection of culture, race, and faith, particularly as it applies to parenting. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Inc., Relevant Magazine and more.