Tuesday, 23 December 2008

'Offensive' shoe boxes? Baah humbug!

This is an edited version of my Bath Chronicle comment of December 24.

It is one of the most cherished Christmas traditions that at this time of the year we try to think of people less fortunate than ourselves.

That is why, even with all the frantic spending that people do at Christmas, they can usually still find time to support the many charities that go into overdrive with street collections and appeals throughout our town centres.

It is, after all, the season of goodwill to all men – but not everybody, it seems, admires every charitable act on offer.

In the Chronicle this week we feature a letter which we have given considerable space to (out of respect of the writer’s opinion) which I really do feel is wrong on many levels.

It has been a tradition for a number of years in this office – and others I have worked at as well as schools that my family members have attended – to encourage people to fill a shoe box full of goodies to send to needy children throughout the world.

The biggest such shoe box organisation is called Operation Christmas Child and they have so far managed to present boxes full of toys, sweets and a genuine dollop of seasonal love to some 60 million boys and girls in just under 20 years.

That is a truly remarkable, inspiring figure and the genuine enthusiasm that we see from people – including very small children – towards supporting this cause is one of those Christmas traditions I hope will stay around for a long time.

But of course you could always wonder what actually happens when those lovingly put together boxes leave your home and head abroad. So, this year, one of our young reporters, Dena Cook, volunteered to join the group who were distributing many of the thousands of boxes from Bath & Wiltshire to see the effect our little bit of charity work has on people.And if the effect is the same as the one it had on Dena, then I’m sure it was humbling.

We saw Dena the day after she returned at our Christmas party and she found it difficult to talk about anything other than what she’d seen. The poverty she encountered in Serbia took her by surprise but she was hugely moved by the genuine appreciation shown by the young recipients as they received their boxes of British love.

Today, however, one of our letter writers opposite portrays Operation Christmas Child as being ‘extremely worrying’ and ‘offensive’ and criticises us for giving it such positive publicity.

The writer’s considered and well-thought out argument is that Operation Christmas Child is a Christian charity which has Christian aims. She quotes from a website that says this means that they are using the appeal to evangelise to young, vulnerable children throughout the world.

I will leave the fact that evangelism is not actually a crime to one side but would state categorically that our reporter (who is not a Christian) says she saw no evidence whatsoever of any attempt by the organisers to ‘convert’ those receiving gifts. The young children – most of whom couldn’t even speak English – were not there for Sunday school teaching, they were there to receive a gift of love donated to them by people thousands of miles away. These boxes were donated by people of all faiths (and none) and delivered to children of all faiths (and none). There was nothing ‘sinister’ going on here and all those involved deserve respect not condemnation.

So, and it seems especially poignant as this time of the year, I think we should acknowledge and support everyone for their charity work – and yes, that very much includes those men and women of faith. If it is Christians organising charities like this then I say good for them – they are after all merely enacting the basic Christian message that we love each other.

Of course a small box is only going to give a temporary respite to a needy child but as the advert says ‘every little helps’. And, according to Dena, help it really did. Those boxes gave hope where there had previously been none.

So, I for one say well done to everyone from this remarkable charity – and to everyone in the Bath region who has generously supported their work. May they continue to do so for a long time.

Happy Christmas.

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