Christians Missions ≠ Westernization

I this article on one of my friend’s Facebook pages and I’m sharing with my readers here, and adding my own comments. It’s Stuffing Shoe Boxes for the World’s Poor? Maybe You should Reconsider by Blake Tommey. In a nutshell it is about the problems with giving to organizations like Operation Christmas Child (OCC). Operation Christmas Child is VERY big in North America, and tries to give to children in developing countries by sending them shoe boxes filled with toys and gifts purchased by people in Western Cultures.
While giving to charities like OCC feels good, and is done with good intentions, it really isn’t addressing the economic challenges in the places the shoe boxes go. If anything, it breathes in more problems because instead of building up a developing country so that its culture is preserved with a sustainable economy to keep it going, OCC’s shoe boxes push for westernizing the children, and eventually the broader culture.

Sorry to all the people I know who give to OCC with the best of intentions, but it really isn’t helping like you want it to. Westernization isn’t the same as spreading God’s Kingdom. It simply isn’t. God’s Kingdom transcends human culture, while at the same time encompasses a diverse range of people.  I’ll say it again: Westernization isn’t the same as Christian missions. If anything, marrying Christianity to Western culture in the form of Christendom/Roman Catholicism  and Protestant Missions during European colonization back fired in many ways: Residential schools in Canada and the USA, Apartheid in South Africa, genocides in Rwanda, way the Hindu people were treated in India, and etcetera. All examples of Westernizing non-European cultures that lead to the Christian efforts nearly destroying the people they wanted to help.

Cultures have good and bad aspects to them, and none are above any of the others. They’re just different. The challenge with  helping the poor isn’t assimilating everybody into one culture, but building the people group in the country up so they’re in economically stable conditions. In this way, they have the dignity to provide for themselves and not depend on others, specifically Western others.

Giving someone a gift is a nice gesture, don’t get me wrong, but it becomes a problem when that’s all that ever happens: Free handout, after free sum of money, after free shoe box to the point where the people don’t bother finding a sustainable income because a western citizen with good intentions will give them free money or a free iPod anyway.  Even in the Scriptures, free handouts weren’t pushed as the norm: Paul was a tent maker, Phoebe owned her own business, Peter and Andrew may have gone back to fishing to make ends meet once in a while, and even Jesus succeeded Joseph as a carpenter in Nazareth after he died (See the Gospels and Acts). They had sustainable incomes at some point, and experienced the dignity God gives people when they have just that.
As Joelle McNamara says in the article, “We’re made in the image of a Creator, and when we provide someone the opportunity to create a product and a living, it’s so powerful and healing. I’ve seen so many switches go off as these women realize how they were made and that they are meant for more. It may sound insane to say that God’s love is experienced through employment, but it is. Give gifts that provide employment and invest in education — that is what gives power to people.” (McNamara, Blakey,  Stuffing Shoe Boxes for the world’s poor?)
So instead of handing out free shoe boxes filled with Western toys, how about try what First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Ga. where the church buys toys from the big chains, and then resells them for 90% of the price to low income customers. An example of an organization is World Vision or Action Against Hunger. It’s a “toy shop that provides local parents the opportunity to shop for their families at a greatly reduced cost and eliminates the shame that often accompanies free giving, Long says” (Blakey). Other charities that do the same for developing countries overseas is World Vision.
I know this is harder than doing things OCC’s way. So does the author of the article, and Joelle McNamara: ““When you drop that Christmas present into the box at church, it feels really good, but when you really deal with the hard thing about poverty, it won’t. Your value comes when you begin to give the things that are harder to give, like sitting down with a kid who never learned how to read because his public school sucks. You can solve that by working with him, by starting a private school that works better or by working with the public schools to make them better, but that’s a long, hard process. You’re going to feel like you’re not making any progress and maybe you won’t, but you’ll finally be engaging poverty.”
So challenge all of you who read this article: Don’t just hand out money, or hand out toys, to charities like OCC. Instead donate money and time to sustainable economies and charity initiatives that give the poor back their dignity as God’s image bearers and carry on living in God’s creation.
Trust me, you won’t regret it.
For Further Reading:
Toxic Charity By Robert D. Lupton
Christian Voluntarism by William Brackney

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