Senegalese children receive gifts from Samaritan’s Purse. These would be the only possessions many of the children could call their own. (Photo: Karen Stiller)
BY Karen Stiller
TUCKED AWAY on a narrow side street of Dakar, a barred door opens into a courtyard. Laundry is strung across the open space, drying under the hotter-than-hot sun, mostly t-shirts of the boys who sprawl on mats in the corner watching old cartoons on an even older television.
What appears to be a high-stakes game of UNO unfolds around a card table near a scratched and faded ping-pong table.
This is a boy’s shelter run by a Christian couple in the predominantly Muslim nation of Senegal in West Africa.
This small, open, gathering place is safe territory for the Talibe who find their way here – they are the thousands of boys conscripted into begging for money on dusty, crowded city streets. Their collected coins are turned in to the mosque leaders who abuse the trust of parents and the vulnerability of the young boys by promising them an education, and exploiting them instead.
At the shelter, though, the boys can eat, rest, shower and embark on vocational training that will eventually free them from their slavery.
This project is supported by Samaritan’s Purse Canada, the Calgary-based, evangelical organization known best for its bright red and green Christmas shoeboxes that churches and individual Christians across Canada fill each year with small items like yoyos, socks, barrettes and bars of soap destined for children living in poverty around the world.
Last year alone Canadians filled 662,312 shoeboxes.
Canadian Anglican congregations were a significant part of that total, coming in second only to Baptists in their embrace of the popular program.
According to a “rough count” by Samaritan’s Purse Canada, more than 400 Anglican congregations from coast to coast signed up as participating congregations and sent in their share of shoeboxes last year to Operation Christmas Child (OCC).
New Song Anglican Church in Port Perry, Ont., was one of them.
Joanne Weller is the parishioner who organizes the effort – requesting shoeboxes from Samaritan’s Purse and then rallying the congregation to pack them during the annual collection season in November of each year.
“We believe that the shoeboxes have a greater purpose, and that is to build Christ’s church on earth. We see how it affects the community positively. There are very few things that can do that,” says Weller. “We’ve always enjoyed the idea that it goes beyond the shoeboxes.”
And that is the very thing that some shoebox packers may not realize as they tuck hairbands and balls and maybe a personal note and photo into the shoeboxes: that their gifts are used strategically by Samaritan’s Purse and their partners on the ground.
Yes, they are fun, and offer once-in-a-blue-moon presents for impoverished children. But the shoeboxes are also used to share the gospel with the children who receive them through an optional follow-up discipleship course.
They build relationships of good will with local communities as churches and schools, along with national OCC staff and volunteers, become the distributors of the boxes on the ground. This new relationship is a bridge that may not have existed before between the church and the community. Balla Konate is pastor of Eglise Evangelique de Walkam in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. His church has received and distributed OCC shoeboxes from Canada for two years.
“We are in a poor neighbourhood where children never receive gifts. The church is working hard with the neighbourhood, to get out and have regular contact,” says Konate. “The shoeboxes help build the relationship between the people and the church. The fathers of the families were very closed, but with the gifts to the children, they open their doors.”
In Senegal especially, says Jeff Adams, communications director for Samaritan’s Purse Canada, “this program has united the churches. We are showing God’s love through tangible gifts, and people are shocked that people would do that. It has a huge impact. I met an Imam who wanted to say how thankful he was.”
And by virtue of being an eyes-wide-open networking presence in the country, Samaritan’s Purse finds and funds projects like the boys’ shelter.
“Samaritan’s Purse is always on the lookout for projects that people have already started and [that need] support,” explains Adams. “Operation Christmas Child tells us about projects that we decide to fund, whether it is for women and children or food and water. Because we do the shoeboxes, we knew about the boys’ project.”
OCC then, says Adams, “becomes more than a gift delivery program, it becomes a development program.” TAP
Writer Karen Stiller travelled to Senegal in September with OCC, to observe first-hand shoebox distributions and other projects supported by OCC and Samaritan’s Purse. She shares some of what surprised her the most – and the least.
• The shoeboxes are distributed throughout the year, not at Christmas. This makes sense – but it still can come as a surprise as we romanticize the idea of children opening them at Christmas.
• We had the opportunity to meet the families and visit the homes of some of the children who received shoeboxes. Absolutely these shoeboxes would be the only possessions many of the children could call their own.
• Children register to receive shoeboxes and careful records are kept to reach as many kids as possible.
• It is often the local schools and churches that distribute the shoeboxes in their surrounding neighbourhoods – with the help of the national OCC staff in that country.
• Kids are kids. They love to receive gifts. I saw several small toys like yoyos that had clearly been purchased at a dollar store (I’ve been guilty of this myself) break right away or not work properly at all. I was convicted to spend a few more dollars on our family’s shoeboxes in the future.
• At the sorting centres in Canada, when boxes are carefully checked for things like inappropriate or dangerous items, the integrity of the box and the intentions of the person who packed it are respected. If there is a doll in a boy’s box, for example, it is left where it is. Samaritan’s Purse staff report that often in cases like that the boy who receives the box will have a little sister at home with whom to share it. TAP