Should I Fill a Shoebox This Christmas?

Professor Chris Bosch's Advice on Intentional Giving

Suddenly it is December. These are the days of dinners after dark, of carrying a jacket out of the house knowing you’ll need to wear it when the temperature radically drops later that night. Naturally, with the turn of the calendar to the last month of the year comes reflection on what God has done for us these last eleven months. To know that another calendar year is coming to a close makes you remember what a gift it is to be carried so faithfully by Jesus in it all. For Christians, what flows out of that tends to be a hunger for any opportunity to practice generosity, to remember that all that we have is a gift. This desire is a beautiful fruit and a testament of God’s work in us that we ought to celebrate. 

In its nearly twenty years of existence, Operation Christmas Child (OCC), a project from an organization called Samaritan’s Purse, has shipped out almost 200 million shoeboxes full of toys, hygiene items, and school supplies. This number alone testifies to the deep hunger so many have to give to those in need, especially around the Christmas season. Filling a shoebox is an incredibly accessible option for anyone looking to give. In Canada alone there are 400 drop-off locations for shoeboxes, run by 700 year-round volunteers with extra help during the busiest week of the year for this operation: national drop-off week. People in over 170 countries and territories have received shoeboxes from eleven different countries. The scale of the amount of individuals that either receive from OCC or are involved in giving in some capacity is on its own quite hard to comprehend and clear evidence of people everywhere wanting to do something good. 

It is important, then, to consider how we might effectively give and be generous in a way that does what we want it to. How do we ensure that our good intentions pour out into helpful, productive, and generally good deeds? As it turns out, the answer to this question involves asking several more questions. 

Chris Bosch, adjunct lecturer at Redeemer in political studies, broke it down into five specific avenues that we must bring our curiosity to. He said, “Is OCC a good way to address poverty? That dualism, that on/off switch, is not going to be sufficient because we need to ask important other questions first.”

First we must ask: what is the problem we are trying to solve? Bosch expanded: “As people who tend to be the donors, we need to ask ourselves this. It will determine how we consider the different remedies that are necessary for addressing the problem. The problem may be lack of water, lack of safety, lack of food, lack of shelter—that’s on the relief side of things. If that’s the case, the problem is acute and requires immediate action, and the remedy will fall into the relief category. It would be very inappropriate to enter a refugee camp where people are on death’s door and only offer them, say, educational opportunities. That’s important, sure, but we need to do more.”

In the world of development, many experts think of poverty responses on a spectrum. On one end is what would be called “relief,” immediate aid to alleviate physical, material pain within communities. On the other end is “development,” more long-term aid that looks to use the assets within a community to encourage them towards independence and freedom from systemic issues. 

With this context, we must next consider where the community that we want to help falls on this spectrum—our second question. Out of that, we must consider another, more complicated third question: who benefits from the aid that we are providing? Is it just the recipient, or is there something in it for us too? 

Bosch continued, “Why would Samaritan’s Purse choose this particular way of meeting need? Who benefits from putting shoeboxes of things and letters in a box and sending them at considerable cost to a family that may or may not find the things in this box helpful? We don’t know the circumstances, so I am not trying to make a judgment call. In fact, it could be that the family who receives it needs the connection from someone in the world to say, ‘I’m being seen; they see me and care for me.’ That moment of connection is beautiful. We can all say that the definition of charity is this: to manifest Christ’s love in tangible ways. I want to acknowledge that it’s coming from that good place, but I also want to ask a deeper question: who benefits? The reality is the people who are putting that package together, your typical church-going Canadians, are also benefiting from that.”

There is a concept in economics called “warm-glow giving” that refers to a reward that a donor receives after making a donation. Warm-glow giving combines both altruistic and egoistic motivations. The reward for the donor can be an emotional high, like the pride you feel upon agreeing to give a dollar when the cashier at the grocery store asks. Personal gains, however, can be seen in other ways, not just socially or emotionally. This is evident on a national level quite clearly in the case of a government aid program called Official Development Aid (ODA). 

From Bosch: “Governments gather funds from their countries and distribute them to poorer countries. There is a real benefit for Canada in that. There is a real reason that development work in Canada has been embedded in ‘foreign affairs’—because in rich countries, ODA is seen as a way to influence other countries. Why would we want that? In many cases they have extractive industries that other countries need. Things like our cell phones, new cars—they require certain minerals that can only be found in other countries, sometimes Canada, sometimes Russia, but often in the heart of Africa, in the Congo. 

“Countries like us are using the ODA to influence other countries. I don’t mean this in a cynical way; I mean this in a pragmatic way. There is no doubt that Canada is a very generous country. I have no doubt that our government is full of good people; they want to help others who are suffering. But there are things called mixed motives, so it’s an important task to consider who benefits. Giving aid to other nations, often African nations, means you must ask why; it’s not pure altruism. There is also a benefit that is accruing to the giver—let’s not be naive about that.”

We want to check the motives of ourselves and of our leaders, know what community we are trying to help, and ensure we have a specific need we are trying to meet. Once we have an idea of what we need to do, how do we ensure we implement it effectively? In short, we must hold up the dignity of every person we encounter and are thinking of and ask, “How would I like to be treated in the same situation?” Our fourth question is empathetic rather than political or theoretical, and that is how we give legs to any of our plans to provide aid. 

Bosch provided an example: “When we give things away, when we give our castoff clothing to markets in Nairobi, we are harming the local economy in many ways, but we also aren’t developing, for example, the local textile industry. The unintended consequence is that the industry does not need to rise up to meet the needs for pants; they just need to wait for the next shipment of pants from Canada. Would you like a handout, or would you like the empowerment to make the decision of what flourishing looks like? I think the answer will be that you want to make that decision for yourself, your family, with your community, and not have someone in another country decide that for you.”

The final question we must consider is steeped in gratitude. Regardless of what actual help is being provided, how are donors and recipients being benefitted? For all of the options of how to help solve problems around the world with what we have, there is a sense of gratitude we must have in seeing that there are benefits for both the donor and recipient, regardless of the means of giving. 

“Canada practices hospitality every time they create an annual budget and say that they want to redirect the millions that go from our roads, for example, to our international neighbours,” Bosch explained. “We develop sympathy, where [we enter] into the pain and hardship of another person and another community. Not for pity’s sake but for the purpose of that oneness. Gratitude emerges from simply thinking about other people and filling a shoebox.”

At the end of the day, the beautiful reality is that we need individuals, Christian or not, to approach the problem of dissonance with God in our world from all sides. The idea of a “plurality of responses,” where there is not just one way to address development or relief issues but actually many, is essential to not only development but also the idea of the body of Christ engaging together in the world. We each carry with us different passions, hurts, and life experiences and will therefore each be spurred on to care for different hurts we see in the world. The question is, “What problem is it that you want to address with your money, time, or any other resource you have this Christmas season?” Let that shape what you actively choose to support, and may we not be individuals who choose the easiest passive way to engage in what seems to be the right thing to do.