Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Topics: UCC in Focus | Opinion

It’s unfair to introduce Christianity to impoverished children through trinkets

"It seems unfair to introduce Christianity — and the beautiful story of Christmas — to children living precarious lives through a box full of trinkets"


Once again, the media shows us voiceless children victimized by violence and war. Here at home, Canadian kids ask hard questions. Our hearts break wide open; our answers are elusive. Televised streams of refugee families continue to haunt us in our beds at 3 a.m. Echos of Paris’ terrified screams become dream soundtracks. Meanwhile, Christmas — the most tender time for Christians and children — is around the corner, and our impulse is to do something. But what?

In September, I awaited my turn to vote in the federal election in a Calgary mall. Across the hall, I noticed a huge tower of shoeboxes stacked in the front of a shop. These didn’t contain shoes; they were Franklin Graham’s boxes in Christmas red, white and green, with Operation Christmas Child logos. A sign informed me that if I filled a shoebox, I would receive a discount. I wandered in, of course, and discovered that most items were plastic, cheap and junky. Many were made in China, possibly by small children in a sweatshop.  The idea is to have consumers do their charitable deed and leave feeling good about brightening a child’s life. But isn’t the  brightening really for the shoppers?

I searched Operation Christmas Child and Samaritan’s Purse on the Internet. These groups have North American kids in public and church schools, as well as youth groups, filling shoeboxes that are shipped to children in dire circumstances in the Middle East, Africa and other regions. But it’s not readily apparent that the shoeboxes are connected to a campaign called “The Greatest Journey.” This is an evangelistic tool to convert children to Christianity. It’s to “save” kids from Islam, Hinduism and other non-Christian traditions.

I’m profoundly uncomfortable with theology proclaiming that Jesus is the only way to God. Further, it seems unfair to introduce Christianity — and the beautiful story of Christmas — to children living precarious lives through a box full of trinkets. Missionaries disguised as jolly givers of free gifts.

The United Church of Canada stopped sending missionaries to convert people to Jesus around the same time we opted out of the Residential Schools, during the 1960s. Our church learned hard lessons in humility — that it was disrespectful to proclaim that “our” God was bigger and better than others’ ideas of the Sacred. Now, our work aims to foster partnerships, respect and co-operation. And I am glad for that.

I don’t know how vicar, lecturer and Guardian columnist Giles Fraser feels about missionaries, but I know how he feels about “gift-wrapped Islamophobia.” His columns about the Christmas Child Shoebox campaign are scathing. He quotes Franklin Graham, saying that Islam is a “wicked religion.”

Of course, every religion is wicked when used as an excuse for violence. Evangelicals of all traditions have been guilty of this over time. For Christians, recall the Crusades, witch hunts and Doctrine of Discovery. More currently, there were the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. According to Fraser, schools and churches that are getting their children involved in Operation Christmas Child need to be aware of the agenda that their participation is helping to promote.

I use shoeboxes to store whatnots and photos. As for doing something for children, l’ll shop in Gifts with Vision and donate to the Syrian family sponsored by our church. I wish you Advent blessings.

This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Observer with the title “Shoeboxes for Kids? No thanks.” 

Carolyn Pogue is a Calgary author and longtime Observer contributor. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit


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