“Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14, NKJV).
Five hundred children sit in circles on the floor of a gym in Ibarra, Ecuador. They wait patiently as dance troupes perform, actors deliver a skit that demonstrates the truth of the gospel, and a local pastor explains the gospel.
Finally, the big moment arrives – Christmas in February! They receive shoeboxes packed with gifts. Oh, what expressions of wonder – the sparkling dark eyes, the sudden wide smiles. The kids are afloat in a sea of soccer balls, dolls, gloves, socks, crayons, pencils, magnifying glasses, coloring books, school supplies, and more.
Gifts for now
Christmas in February? Yes. And here’s why: Operation Christmas Child has successfully engaged people like you and me to pack Christmas shoeboxes or give a few dollars to fill a box with gifts. Just imagine this: In 2016, 11,485,662 shoebox gifts were collected. Understandably, it is impossible to distribute all of the boxes in December.
Thus, for three days in February, the scene in Ibarra was repeated many times around the city in a campaign led by a dedicated platoon of foot soldiers – OCC staff members with a cause, a strategy, and a plan.
I had the blessing of traveling with OCC to the Christmas shoebox distribution in Ibarra, so I got to see the OCC team in action. It’s a ministry I already highly respected, but this experience showed me more commitment, more love, and more heart than I could have ever anticipated.
The gospel forever
But wait. There’s more. Something even better than the glittery gifts and giddy giggles. It’s the gospel.
On Sunday morning, we attended worship at Pastor Nestor Saavedra’s church where we were honored to participate in a graduation. Yes, a graduation – caps and tassels and diplomas and antsy kids wiggling in imperfect lines in front of a packed church and a host of proud parents.
Almost 100 children were honored for completing The Greatest Journey, a 12-week introduction to the gospel. It is a discipleship curriculum developed by Samaritan’s Purse, parent ministry of OCC, especially for children in other cultures.
One by one, name by name, each girl and boy received a diploma, and we guests were honored to place the mortarboard on each child’s head and present each one a brand new Bible. Just thinking about it again brings tears to my eyes.
Goals for the future
The OCC leaders were prepared and focused, making sure 4,000 children received Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. Making sure 4,000 children experienced the love of Christ. Making sure they heard the gospel.
Yet that weekend was a mere minuscule reflection of the reach of OCC and its goals. Since Samaritan’s Purse, under the leadership of Franklin Graham, assumed the reins of OCC in 1993, more than 135 million children in 150 countries have received Christmas gift boxes.
Furthermore, the heart of OCC is to see The Greatest Journey expanded until every child who receives a shoebox may also be discipled through that course.
Integrity of the ministry
Finally, I must speak to the integrity of Samaritan’s Purse and all I have observed over the decades. I first saw it in tangible form years ago when I visited Good Shepherd’s Fold, a Uganda home and school for children of poverty and need. Mark, the director, took me to see their two newest duplex homes – four new homes for some 50 more children.
“Samaritan’s Purse built these for us,” he told me.
“Oh, that’s great,” I responded. “Did you apply for a grant, or how did that happen?”
“Well, no,” Mark said, “there was no grant or request involved. They just visited our campus and asked what our greatest need was. We told them we needed room for more children. They said, ‘OK.’ And they built these homes.”
I kind of subtly looked around for a plaque or something, a “Samaritan’s Purse” label. I found none, so I asked Mark if he would erect a sign or something to acknowledge the gift.
“They didn’t want recognition,” Mark said. “They just wanted to help us rescue more children.”
I saw that same principle in action in Ecuador. OCC distributions and programs are planned and directed by local pastors, so the gifts are a bridge to draw their communities to Christ through that local church. And only after training by OCC, The Greatest Journey is taught by a pastor or local teacher.
OCC is a ministry carried out with humility, intended to empower the local church. It serves and witnesses not for applause, but for advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Only $6 will provide all materials, including the Bible, for a child to be discipled through The Greatest Journey. Learn more at samaritanspurse.org or by calling 828-262-1908.
Editor’s Note: The above text was expanded from a story that will originally appear in the upcoming May 2017 AFA Journal. The above photo is courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse.