Elena. Irinia. Ted. I have a lump in my throat while listening to their stories. For about one minute, these teenagers share a synopsis of their life story, starting with the pain and hopelessness of abuse, neglect and despair, and ending with the joy of adoption. And everything started because someone, on the other side of the globe, cared enough to send them a shoe box filled with simple, inexpensive toys.
While I watch the videos, pictures of children around the world parade across the screen: an orphanage filled with children in tattered winter clothes. A village somewhere in Africa where boys and girls flash beautiful, broad smiles at the camera. A church floor somewhere in Latin America where a little girl with sad eyes holds her box as her most prized possession.
No – certainly not all orphans on the screen have Elena, Irinia and Ted’s happy ending. Yes – most children in the African village go back to a life of poverty. But as they hold the toy-filled shoe boxes, their sorrow pauses, if only for a moment, as their hearts grasp this message, loud and clear: “Somewhere, out there, someone cares about me.”
I’ve been writing columns about Operation Christmas Child for the past five years right before collection week. As an ambassador for this organization, I have had the privilege to hear countless stories, as well as meet adults who were once recipients of one of the boxes delivered across the globe. Each story shares a common thread: A simple shoe box brought new hope to a child’s heart.
This is the season when our children fill their Christmas list with toys and gadgets, which often end up at the bottom of a closet within a month or two. It’s the season for companies to spend millions of dollars in advertisements, designed to entice our cravings for more and better. Indeed, consumerism can easily turn our hearts from the true meaning of the season.
Several years ago, however, my husband and I made the decision to use the holiday season as an opportunity to teach our children about the joy of giving. We receive the Samaritan’s Purse catalog, which contains the wonderful projects sponsored by this organization across the globe. From purchasing a chick to help feed a family, to raising funds to build wells in places where drinkable water is a rare commodity, the catalog offers various opportunities to help people in need.
On an account in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had left the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples, when he started teaching through parables, as he often did. In one of them, he talked about separating the sheep from the goats, in a reference to differentiate those who are truly his followers. He then used words that puzzled his disciples: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came visit me.”
The disciples were confused, for they did not remember helping the master in any such instance. Jesus then explained: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
What a challenge to those of us who boldly claim to love God! His words remind me that self-gratifying religion is no religion at all. At this age of entitlement, when children complain when they don’t have the latest smart phone, or throw a tantrum when they don’t get what they want when they want it, caring and giving to those in need can become the perfect antidote to a self-centered society.
May we heed Jesus’ words as we draw near the time to celebrate his birth, for giving to the “least of these” is giving him the perfect birthday gift.
You can find out more about Operation Christmas Child and other projects at www.samaritanspurse.org. Shoe box collection week starts this Monday, Nov. 13.
Patricia Holbrook is a Christian author, blogger and international speaker. Her book, “Twelve Inches,” is on sale at Barnes & Nobles, Amazon and retailers worldwide. Visit her website www.soaringwithHim.com. For speaking engagements and comments, email pholbrook@soaringwithHim.com.