By Buddy Smith
Editor’s Note: In February, AFA executive vice president Buddy Smith and his wife, Carol, traveled with Operation Christmas Child on several shoe box distributions near the capital city of Quito, Ecuador. Names of children in the true stories below have been changed for privacy purposes.
Juan hobbled along beside his mother, holding her hand to steady his crippled gait. They had walked for two days, and their goal was almost in sight. They soon arrived at the church where they had heard gifts would be given to children. A pastor greeted them and expressed concern for Juan’s limp, but the mother explained that he had never been able to walk normally, and they had no money for the special shoes he needed.
When gift boxes were distributed to children in the crowd, Juan excitedly opened his box. There on top of a box full of toys and surprises sat a pair of orthopedic shoes – in Juan’s size. But that was not the greatest miracle Juan received that day. When they heard the gospel, both he and his mother gave their lives to Christ.
In our cynical world today, we might not believe in miracles anymore, but Operation Christmas Child regional director Chris Swanson verifies this one. It happened. We had no idea how the small gift of a shoe box held such life-altering potential for children all over the world. In Ecuador with OCC, we witnessed the church alive, the Great Commission in motion – and another OCC miracle.
OCC is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical relief organization that helps people in crisis situations and shares with them the love of Jesus Christ. The mission of OCC is to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way to needy children around the world and, together with the local church worldwide, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Though it began as a Christmas project, OCC now does distributions year round.
I wish you could meet Isabella, a 9-year old we met at an OCC distribution in a remote village. Isabella carries her 2-year-old sister on her back and smiles proudly when others tell her they like her baby or that she is a good sister. She cradles both hands behind the small child, carefully transporting her little sister. One of our team asked a translator if it is normal for a child so small (though 9, she is the size of most 6-year-olds) to be caring for a baby, and the translators explained that it is indeed common and that Isabella probably knows how to cook and care for the whole family.
Ecuador has a population of 15 million and borders Columbia, Peru and the Pacific Ocean. There are startling disparities between rich and poor, with 38% of the population living in poverty. Chronic malnutrition affects 23% of children under age 5. Yet the people were kind, loving and grateful. At each distribution, they greeted us with genuine smiles, hugs and kisses. Their authentic welcome left us with no doubts about their thankfulness for us being there.
Our team took part in four distributions. The first stop was with a pastor who shepherds two churches and works as a driver in the city during the week to support his ministry and family. The children who regularly attend his church were invited by the pastor to the party and urged to invite a friend. It was here where we first witnessed how God takes a simple gift offered in love and, coupled with the prayers of His people, it becomes an explosive life-changing tool for the church to share the gospel.
This pastor was overwhelmed by the number of children who turned out, and he lovingly shared the gospel with them. He was joined by members of his church who added music and drama to the presentation in their native language. Our OCC team enjoyed some more intimate moments of sharing and prayer with the pastor before departing. Tears streamed down his face as he told us goodbye.
“You must tell everyone, please, please tell everyone thank you so much from the bottom of our hearts,” he said. “We will never forget this.”
Miracles still happen
Our second stop was a church of 150 regular attendees, 100 of whom are children. The pastor and his people had worked hard to prepare for our visit and were expecting about 150 children. Upon arrival we soon sensed a level of excitement from the pastor at the large numbers of children pouring in. On the other hand, our OCC leadership team quickly realized there were a lot more children than gift boxes.
While the pastor shared the gospel, the children listened attentively, and the team began praying for a “loaves and fishes” moment. We knew only God could provide – as He did when Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:13-21).
No, we didn’t see stacks of additional shoe boxes magically appear, but we did see a miracle: too many children, too few boxes – yet every child received a box.
Our next stop was at a daycare center where children were beautifully dressed in uniforms. As we passed out the shoe boxes, our attention was drawn to one little boy who didn’t seem interested in opening his gifts, so we went to help him. We would hand him one article at a time from the box, but each time he would look at it and place it back in the box as if he couldn’t believe these gifts were for him. We prayed for him to grasp the truth that God loves him and we love him, too.
At our final stop, we got to go sit in on a Greatest Journey class, OCC’s discipleship program in which children are taught about the life of Jesus Christ and how it pertains to them. (See review, P. 26.) We were at a location where our friend and travel companion, Joey, had gone to pass out shoe boxes seven years earlier, and we ran into another one of those OCC miracles. Three of the children who received shoe boxes from Joey’s group years ago became Christians, and they were now teaching these classes.
We returned late that afternoon to reflect on our day and what it meant to us. One story really impressed us during this time. One team member said she sat at a school waiting to pass out shoe boxes, when across the room, she spotted a little boy wearing a Cars hat. He appeared to be about 2½ years old, the age of her twin grandsons who also love the Cars movie. So she made it a special point to be near him and help him open his shoe box. After spending a few minutes getting to know the child, it was time to open the gift box. As he lifted the lid off his box, there sat a Cars shirt right on top. She said tears just sprang to her eyes because she felt like it was God saying, “You see? I know this child. I know each and every one of you.”
ur experience in Ecuador taught us how the OCC project is about much more than coloring books, toys and toothbrushes. Participation in OCC enables Samaritan’s Purse to share the Good News of God’s greatest gift, His Son Jesus Christ, with boys and girls who need to know how much Jesus loves them.
Yes, we learned first-hand that OCC is more than giving and receiving, more than collecting and distributing. It’s a movement of the Holy Spirit calling children into the kingdom. Jesus was exalted in all we did in Ecuador, and we witnessed many children’s hearts opening to accept Him as Savior and Lord.
We saw children’s lives changed through the simple gifts of love packed in a shoe box. If you packed one last year, thank you for all of the hugs and kisses we received on your behalf. We can hardly wait to pack our boxes this year.
These shoe boxes aren’t just boxes that people fill with random presents. We saw how they are filled with hope, love, joy and everything needed to change a life forever.
SIDEBAR: A gift for a child
In 2011, OCC collected 8.6 million gift-filled shoe boxes that brought smiles to the faces of hurting children all around the world. Those children were also exposed to the gospel, and many received Christ. OCC expects to distribute the 100 millionth shoe box in 2012.
For this Christmas season, OCC will collect shoe boxes during National Collection Week, November 12-19. However, OCC also accepts shoe box gifts year-round at their North Carolina headquarters. Here’s how you participate:
1) Box – Use an empty shoe box (standard size) or comparable plastic container. Begin praying for the child who will receive your box.
2) Boy or Girl – Decide on the gender and an age range for the child you want to provide for (2-4, 5-9, 10-14). Put a label with that information on the outside of the box you fill. (You can download labels at the Website.)
3) Buy gifts – Select small toys, combs, toothbrushes, T-shirts, school supplies, etc.
4) Donate – Please donate $7 for each shoe box you prepare to help cover shipping.
5) Drop off – Place a strong rubber band around your box and drop it off at a collection center November 12-19.
For drop-off locations, visit www.samaritanspurse.org/occ or call 800-353-5949. You may mail your shoe box to Samaritan’s Purse, 801 Bamboo Road, Boone, NC 28607.