In a recent article, Jeff Brumley explains why quite a few church leaders are raising questions about the Operation: Christmas Child ministry of Samaritan’s Purse (see https://baptistnews.com/article/franklin-graham-toxic-charity-concerns-send-churches-packing-from-operation-christmas-child/#.XcV5tcBKhdg).
Mr. Brumley shares examples of church leaders who have re-imagined their previous support of the ministry commonly known as the Shoebox Ministry and are now finding local ministry settings to share similar boxes. The influence of books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts has caused many Christians to question the effects of well-intentioned charitable gifts on other cultures. Several social media outlets carry videos of children who are bewildered with some of the items in the shoeboxes which they receive. And the effect of such gifts on the local economy—as well as the effects on children in non-Christian environments who receive the shoeboxes–are areas which need further research.
In North Carolina, United Methodists from across the state have sent around 5000 plastic boxes each year filled with items through Project Agape to children for Christmas in Nagorno-Karabakh and Artzakh—territories which have a historical connection to the country of Armenia. Similar questions and concerns that have been raised about Operation: Christmas Child might be raised about the work of Project Agape.
Since I have been a volunteer in the past at Operation: Christmas Child on all levels and am presently involved with the volunteer efforts of Project Agape’s Christmas Box operation, I can and will offer these differences in the ministries so that you and others can judge for yourselves.
Operation: Christmas Child employs a large number of temporary workers at each of its processing centers in Boone, Charlotte, and six other locations in the US. These temporary workers are tasked with taking money out of the boxes ($9 is asked for to help cover administrative expenses) before any volunteer at the center touches a box. The boxes are then carefully sorted before the large volunteer groups work to process the boxes. All through the process, there are staff workers who help to supervise the process and to keep folks working in a steady manner. There are behind-the-scenes persons who deposit the checks, collect as much data as possible so that future mailings can be sent out, and handle the logistics of getting hundreds of thousands of boxes to children around the world.
Project Agape does not have any paid staff that is primarily focused on receiving and processing boxes. Although there are several persons who help direct the ministry to some degree, there is a large dependency upon volunteers at every level. As the boxes go from the hands of persons who prepare them to the collection centers, to the MERCI warehouse in Goldsboro, to Armenia, they are literally touched an average of seven times—with all of those touches done by volunteers. Volunteers help to get the boxes to the MERCI Center and other drop off points. Volunteers take out the money in the boxes. Volunteers assiduously check each box to make sure that it is not only filled to the brim, but that there is equity among the boxes so that each child of a particular age group will receive similar items.
Volunteers load huge heavy boxes upon shipping containers at the warehouse. Logistics are handled by volunteers in California, the Republic of Georgia (where the containers are shipped), and on the ground in Armenia. At present, there is only one Project Agape employee who is paid in Armenia to handle the boxes on the ground—Nara Melkonyan. This energetic woman and her family give extraordinary time and efforts to this ministry. And, parenthetically, her salary is nowhere near the salary of persons who work in ministry in many different contexts.
As for the impact in Armenia (I’m using “Armenia” here as a shorthand for the territories that Project Agape works in which are in fact still considered to be disputed territory by the United Nations), Project Agape is the only humanitarian agency that works in that region. No other non-governmental entity wants to have a presence in that part of the world. From the beginning, Project Agape partnered with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which still blesses this ministry. Because of the political climate as well as the actual climate of the Caucasus Mountains, the poverty level is very high. There are simply not many available jobs. Despite the challenges, Christian immigrants from Iraq and Syria have found their way to this land to try to start a new life. Project Agape has been the only agency to offer basic humanitarian items to these refugee families until they can become self-sufficient.
When volunteers went to this part of the world and witnessed for themselves the challenges as they worked with the poor, they noticed that the children in particular did not have basic school supplies, socks, caps, and toys which help children play and learn. A few persons applied what they knew about Operation: Christmas Child and used that model (without all of the attendant bureaucracy) for Project Agape.
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be a part of a Christmas box distribution in Armenia know the difference that a plastic box filled with tangible gifts of agape makes. We have seen firsthand how Nara calls each child by their name…how she asks about their families…how she literally blesses the child when she carefully gives the child a box. We have seen Nara give extra boxes to children to give to their siblings who could not walk the three miles to the distribution center. We have seen Nara and her volunteer staff (including usually her brother), take a pick-up truck load of boxes to a remote village near Iran—along with food and blankets that cannot be purchased for any price in that remote region.
Is Project Agape hurting the local economy by shipping those boxes over? Nara says no because there are not any local establishments to buy any of the items in most of the villages. The nearest shopping centers are often a day’s journey away. And if the family could afford any of the items that Project Agape sends, they would spend three times as much to purchase them. Families simply would go without these types of gifts for their children. These gifts are not just extraneous items that folks have thrown haphazardly into a box, they have been carefully selected by Nara and the volunteers in North Carolina to provide practical as well as playful items for children of all ages.
Even if a person from Murphy or Manteo, NC never goes to Armenia, they can be present with a present. Somehow, some way, a box that starts as random items on a shelf on a dollar store makes its way to a village with a name connected to a saint of the Church—and lands safely in the hands of a child who otherwise would not have a Christmas present. The very presence of the gift reminds that child of another Child who was born into poverty in another land—who grew up in a loving family to share Agape with an entire world. Even now, through gifts of love inspired by His Spirit, Project Agape is making an impact upon one child at a time. The smile of a child is all the thanks that any of us needs.
That smile should mitigate our concerns and inspire us to support this unique ministry –not only with Christmas boxes, but with ongoing and sustainable support of people who are truly living on the margins of life. Project Agape is a holistic ministry in Nagorno –Karabakh which provides humanitarian assistance and support for sustainable projects in agriculture, education, and private enterprise.
*Article written by Bill Haddock