When Operation Christmas Child invited me to travel to Uganda to deliver shoebox gifts to children in need, I really had no idea what to expect.
I have traveled many places around the world, but this was my first trip to Africa.
Would it be safe? What would the food and water situation be? And most importantly: How in the world would I share my faith and experience with God with impoverished children in Africa? How would I speak into lives that are so different than my own?
An amazing fact about Uganda is that there are 2.5 million abandoned children living in the country. They wander the dirt roads and the city streets with no adults to care for them. You see children caring for children, everywhere you go.
The HIV virus, family instability and extreme poverty have taken the lives of millions of adults. Currently 50% of the nation’s population is under the age of 15, and even for the children who live with their families, poverty is widespread and extreme.
Ironically, in the midst of all this darkness, one can really sense the presence of Christ in Uganda. Little churches are everywhere you go. There is an amazing number of ministry organizations addressing both the physical and spiritual needs of the people, and the depth of faith of local Christians is unlike anything I have ever seen.
It is always surprising to me how many people pack shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child without realizing that their gift is so much more than a box of toys. Operation Christmas Child distributes these gifts through local churches all around the world as a means of equipping churches to connect with children and their families, inviting them into a relationship with Christ and into a relationship with the church.
Of the 9 million children who received shoebox gifts last year, 1.4 million children went on to participate in a 12-week discipleship program called The Greatest Journey.
While in Uganda, I had the opportunity to hand out shoe boxes at 7 different churches. Children came out in droves, not even knowing that they would be receiving a gift. Some of the children walked more than two hours to come. Most of these children had never received a gift in their lives, and we learned that some churches had been on a waiting list to receive shoe boxes for over 4 years.
Clearly the pastors anticipated the amazing power of a simple gift, and yet, even they were overwhelmed and often moved to tears over the children who showed up by the hundreds.
When I returned to the U.S., many people asked if it broke my heart to see the poverty and suffering in Uganda. The truth is, the entire time I was there, I felt grateful for the enormity of our God who can work miracles with even our smallest efforts. I felt a renewed commitment to saying “yes” to God, knowing that He can use even our most humble efforts to transform lives.
Of all the things we need in this world – food, shelter, relationships – hope is the thing we need the most. Only hope gives us courage through the darkness. When we have hope, we have everything.
So for the children who live lives of enormous struggle, to learn that the God who created them loves them; that He has a purpose and a plan for their lives; that He wants to be in relationship with them; that their current circumstance is not all there is; that He loves them so much that He sent His son to die for them so that they can have life – what greater gift is there than that?
National Collection Week for Operation Christmas Child begins today, November 18 and it goes through November 25. All throughout Atlanta and all throughout the United States, there will be locations available for you to drop-off a shoe box packed with school supplies, toys and hygiene items. You can click this link to learn how to pack a shoebox and where to drop it off… Perhaps you have the means to pack more than one.
Millions of children around the world need the hope that only God can provide, and the miracle of God is that He can offer that hope in ways that we can’t even imagine – even through a simple shoe box packed with simple gifts.
Carol Smith is a year-round volunteer for Operation Christmas Child. She is also wife to Greg for 25 years and mom to Aaron, Sarah and Audrey.