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Giving Gifts With Strings Attached: Questioning Evangelical Programs in Public Schools

By Darren Lund  

I understand that expressing a dissenting view on certain issues comes with its share of risks. Any concerns about a popular program involving sending gifts to needy children may sound positively Scrooge-like, especially during this season. Even so, I wish to share my concerns with the burgeoning international Operation Christmas Child campaign.

Patrick LaMontagne
Patrick LaMontagne
With Permission of Rocky Mountain Outlook

My sincere hope is to direct attention onto a basic issue of fairness in light of the growing diversity of our society.

The intent of the "shoe box campaign" seems simple; youngsters are encouraged to select special gifts to place in a shoe box to be delivered to underprivileged children in various countries suffering from natural or political disasters. Often whole schools take part. Creating these boxes is a highly appealing, concrete activity that captures the attention of well-meaning students and teachers alike.

It also supports an evangelical Christian movement called Samaritan's Purse whose intentions may not be clearly explained in promotional materials provided to schools and the media. I recognize the value in fostering greater global awareness in children and encouraging giving to those less fortunate; however, I am also aware that public schools are increasingly diverse, and any such widely-adopted programs should be appropriate for all students.

I suspect many people are not fully aware of the specific evangelical activities Samaritan's Purse undertakes using these boxes. Founded in the late 1970s by ousted World Vision leader Robert Pierce and headed for many years by Franklin Graham, the organization offers relief to people in several areas of the world, but proudly affirms that its primary goal is to bring an evangelical Christian ministry to non-Christians.

Graham admits that the shoe box program is "not just about reaching children with a shoe box.... this project focuses on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with them through Christian literature distributed with the shoe boxes" (Operation Christmas Child brochure). I was also assured by a supervisor in the Samaritans Purse Canadian headquarters in Calgary that, besides being given biblical literature translated into their native language, each child wishing to receive a box will attend a mandatory Christian 'rally' in which the word of the Lord is proclaimed, in every country where it is legal. Further, a majority of the boxes are distributed in communities that have a resident evangelical Christian pastor who can provide 'follow-up' ministering. This is gift-giving with strings attached.

In Bosnia, where the Samaritan's Purse has been helping refugees move into new homes, Graham explains their motive: "By helping refugee families... we'll be earning the right to preach Christ to these families and their Muslim neighbors." But isn't this taking advantage of people at their most vulnerable? Of course it is, according to Graham himself in his 1995 book Rebel With a Cause, because by responding to tragedies "we earn a hearing for Christ. When people are down and out and we stop and help, they will listen to what we have to say... you better believe I will take advantage of each and every opportunity to reach them with the gospel message that can save them from the flames of hell."

Choosing to provide relief in the name of Christ is laudable, but the singular purpose of Operation Christmas Child is to attempt religious conversions using the boxes as a means of making contact with the suffering children. As Graham concedes, "the primary goal of Samaritan's Purse is sharing the gospel. Some people are a bit surprised to learn that this is our main focus, but it's true: We are not just a Christian relief organization. We are an evangelistic organization that takes to the ditches and gutters of the world."

Like most people, I value the appropriate sharing of faith, culture, and traditions, and currently most of our public schools welcome children from non-Christian families. Out of respect for them, the central mission of the Samaritan's Purse should be more clearly explained to teachers and parents. Graham's work in India, for example, releasing "hundreds of millions of people locked in the darkness of Hinduism... bound by Satan's power" simply has no place in the multi-faith context of public schools today.

Schools supporting this massive fund-raising effort for a particular Christian evangelical ministry are failing in their responsibility to respect the dignity of all of their students. I cannot imagine any other religious groups being given permission to enter schools and channel our children's enthusiasm and money to promote their specific beliefs in this manner.

Besides, there are several domestic and international relief agencies that could use these precious resources and charitable energy. Exemplary relief efforts are conducted by the Red Cross, Oxfam, UNICEF, Foster Parents Plan, and many other groups whose assistance to people suffering from natural disasters, economic hardships, and political unrest does not include proselytizing.

I strongly encourage school councils--and school boards--to show strong ethical leadership on this issue by taking action to protect the students entrusted to them. Being provided with more complete information on the shoe box program will no doubt lead many parents and teachers to select other, more appropriate charitable activities for their children.

Just over half a century ago the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights mapped out a clear path for us to follow. Let us continue to strive to act in ways that reaffirm the inherent dignity of every person regardless of faith. In this light, evangelism of any specific denomination is best undertaken by churches and private citizens who choose to support it, allowing us to maintain schools as places where staff and students of all faiths are respected.

Darren Lund is an Alberta parent and award-winning educator

A revised version of this piece appeared as a Guest Opinion column entitled, "Samaritan's Purse should be more open about mission" in the Calgary Herald Nov 10, 1999.

Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child Exposed...  

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