Edward Graham, the grandson of the late evangelist Billy Graham, says shoeboxes filled with gifts are reaching more children and unreached people with the Gospel than the massive global evangelistic events his grandfather held over decades.
“More kids have heard about Christ through these shoebox distributions than ever heard about Christ in stadiums with my grandfather,” said Graham, vice president of programs and government relations at Operation Christmas Child, regarding the evangelistic opportunity shoebox gifts are creating around the world for the Gospel to spread like wildfire.
Some might underestimate the impact of packing gift boxes during the holidays, but Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, has provided an open door for people to be a part of evangelism efforts around the world. Operation Christmas Child participants fill shoe sized gift boxes that are sent to over 160 nations, including 50 hard to reach areas.
In the spring of 2016, Samaritan’s Purse held an outreach event for the Himba people, an unreached people group in the village of Opuwo which sits on the border of Angola and Namibia in Africa. Later that fall, a ministry partner, Pastor Rizera, traveled the long distance across cow paths and over six dry river beds to bring Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts and the Gospel message to the Himba children.
The Himba tribe consists of 50,000 semi-nomadic people who live in a region across Southern Angola to Northern Namibia. Before the shoebox distribution, the people of Ombaka mostly practiced ancestral worship and were resistant to the Gospel message, with less than 3% of people professing to be Christian. Following an Operation Christmas Child outreach event that hosted 130 children in the village, 46 children and six young adults wanted to continue to learn more about Jesus.
The gift boxes collected and distributed to children are often filled with toys, school supplies, hygiene items and always contain booklets with the Gospel message. Samaritans Purse, along with ministry partners, delivers the boxes to children in need around the world, opening the door for the next generation to hear the message of God.
If children want to continue to learn more about Jesus, Operation Christmas Child has a 12-lesson discipleship program, called The Greatest Journey, which takes children further into discovering what it is to follow Jesus and how to share that with their family.
The Himba people have been so impacted by these gifts that they participated in an oral version of The Greatest Journey. Their hunger to learn more about Jesus grew so large that the village elder had no other choice but to provide some land under a group of trees for the people to gather and be discipled by Pastor Rizera.
Now, villagers have dedicated a church building, the first one ever built in Ombaka, Namibia.
Despite their history of being animists, which consist of worshiping their ancestors and tree spirits, nearly 100 Himba now gather at their new church base to worship Lord Jesus Christ.
Samaritan's Purse has also teamed up with the Seed Company, an organization that's doing work in the area of Bible translation for unreached people groups. Due to the great partnership with churches and pastors around the world that Operation Christmas Child has, the Seed Company was able to record an oral translation of Scripture in the Himba language onto solar-powered mp3 players.
The following is an edited transcript of Graham’s full interview with The Christian Post where he discusses the impact Christmas gift boxes are having on the Himba tribe and people all across the world.
CP: The Operation Christmas Child boxes have had a great impact on a village in Namibia, with the Himba tribe. Can you share with us how that came about?
Graham: You look at the Himba and they’re right there on the border of Namibia and Angola, very remote, a herder tribe family. There's no written language and no one has been able to penetrate them or reach them with the Gospel. But here is a pastor who has again been faithfully going out and he did an Operation Christmas Child shoebox distribution there.
He's a little creative in the way he's doing the Gospel presentation and these kids have gone out and shared the story. Because they're an oral community and things are shared that way, it almost spreads like wildfire, they go out and they share the Good News.
The first [distribution] was in 2016 and here we are several years later and they do a church dedication there. The village elder gave land for a church under a group of trees. This is where the church has grown and they've had a church dedication there now. Just like what we saw in Mexico, that village is very proud of their church and where they worship the Lord. And they want other villages, they want their neighbors to see, and they go out and they share that news and that message and the Gospel. It's so encouraging for me to see.
CP: Can you talk about the importance of the evangelistic aspect of these Christmas boxes?
Graham: One thing that's spoken around the world is soccer. [In other countries] it's called football. Can you imagine a little soccer ball packed into a box, a kid opens that and receives, is there joy in that? Yes, there is.
Everywhere around the world they know what a soccer ball is. If you pack one and a kid gets to see that and open it up, there is joy and it's great to see that child smile. [Or] that little girl, every girl in the world wants a doll. If you think of the Himba tribe, these kids have nothing. They've never seen a toy, they've never been a part of something like that. And to get that, isn't it nice and sweet? Well of course it is.
Do I enjoy that? Yes. But I didn't come to Samaritan's Purse to do good works or make children smile. I came here to share the Gospel. So the shoebox is a nice gift, where you get to show the love of Jesus Christ through a simple gift, a box of toys to a child that's never had anything, especially during a time of pandemic where the world's been shut off and kids are scared and they don't know what's going around in the world around them.
There's such great misinformation about this virus, there's fear. In a place of that fear, to be able to say, "Hey, we love you. God loves you, here's a gift." But on top of that gift, we do a Gospel presentation to everyone. Where a child clearly hears the Gospel and gets to understand that story.
There are partners that come alongside us and about 4 million kids are sponsored to go through The Greatest Journey. After shoebox distribution for those kids that have made a decision for Christ, they go through a discipleship program where they're discipled and they're taught through several lessons and several weeks through the story of the Gospel, and how the Gospel's laid out. And then, they're taught how to go and share that with their family and with their friends.
I love that part of the ministry, making disciples of men and especially the children because they're so bold. Where us adults, we'll make excuses: "I can't talk to Aunt Susie, she'll be offended."
A kid doesn't care, a kid goes out and lives their faith and they've been so bold. I saw that in Mexico and that's happening here with the Himba. These are unreached people groups, kids that have never, would never, hear the Gospel. God is using something simple, as a simple shoebox full of toys to pierce the heart of darkness. I love that and I'm so excited about it.
You hear a lot of people talk about, "You shouldn't be involved with Operation Christmas Child because God doesn't work in a shoebox." Well, I've learned a long time ago, never put God in a box and don't tell God what He can and can't do.
God is using this ministry to further the name of Jesus Christ more so than probably even my grandpa. More kids have heard Christ through these shoebox distributions than ever heard about Christ in stadiums with my grandfather, that's incredible. Those numbers are absolutely incredible to see decisions being made.
I love my grandfather's ministry and it's still going strong and millions of people are coming to Christ through that ministry. This is just another tool for evangelism that God's using.
CP: What do you think your grandfather would think about OCC and these children who are being ministered to and then becoming the little evangelists themselves?
Graham: He started off with Youth for Christ. That's where my grandfather started early in his career as an evangelist. He always had a heart for the youth. He saw the beginning years when dad [Franklin Graham] started going to Kosovo with shoeboxes when we first started. When dad was committed about few years into it, he said, "This will always be about evangelism, not just passing toys out." My grandfather was 100% behind it.
He didn't get to see much of the switch to the unreached people groups. I think he would have been so encouraged. I know he'd be encouraged a lot by that because where he was in stadiums and with TV, it often couldn't penetrate the unreached.
You think back to the '80s, it penetrated the Iron Curtain, and he was able to get into Russia through his ministry there, and in a sense, they were unreached because of that.
But now, to see where it's going around the globe, distance, language barriers, remote jungles or in the mountains — there's nothing that is stopping the Gospel, that part of the ministry, and our work with the Seed Company, he would have loved that.
CP: Samaritan's Purse has partnered with the Seed Company, an affiliate of Wycliffe Bible Translators which has provided an oral translation of the Bible, in the Himba language. Can you talk about the partnership with the Seed Company?
Graham: We're not the church at Samaritan's Purse, we partner with the churches. We also have a lot of talent and it's just incredible, the staff that God has brought. But we don't do Bible translation and language translations. We've been gifted with a lot of people from various parts of the world that can speak languages, but we're hampered when it's — how do you do a Gospel presentation to the Himba tribe? When no one speaks their language here in the United States?
Along comes the Seed Company, this is what God has called them to do. They've been resourced to do this and if they're not, they know where to go and how to do it. It’s just an incredible organization that has been so faithful and so committed to the Gospel and spreading the Word, especially with the unreached. They had the same heart that we do here in Operation Christmas Child with getting after the unreached.
I think they realized we had access to areas because the Lord brings us to faithful pastors. We have a pastor who has a heart for the Himba tribe. Well, who else out there is getting access to the Himba tribe? I don't know anyone else and the Lord led us to Pastor Rizera to do this.
I think the Seed Company sees that and acknowledges that God is using a simple gift as a shoebox to present the Gospel and they wanted to be a part of it.
So they came along, and we got these solar-powered [Bibles]. Because you don't have batteries out there. Even if you did, you'd have no way to charge anything up. There's no power. These little devices aren't necessarily that cheap, but they can go around and push play and charge it up during the daytime.
These things get reused over and over and over again. They're an oral community [so] anything that produces sound they want to hear, and they're going be captivated by it and listen to it. To be captivated by the Word of God it's just incredible. So we're working more and more, trying to get more of Scripture translated for them. I can't thank the Seed Company enough for the work they're doing and the support they've given us. To say they're faithful, it would be an understatement.
CP: I wanted to ask specifically about the global COVID-19 pandemic. Has it affected any of the operations for Operation Christmas Child?
Graham: It's affecting some countries. When it hit, it was at the end of our collection season, so they're in shipping. A lot of the shoeboxes got stuck in port or customs somewhere and they've had to stay there because the country shut down.
Many countries, though, have opened back up. Then, our local teams that we've trained in-country, have gone out and been able to share and spread the Gospel just like they've always done. Now they're hungry, and they're waiting for this next season's collection.
What we don't know is, with this year's collection season, is what happens here in the U.S. How the U.S. is going to respond.
Last year, our churches here and globally [collected] about 10 million shoeboxes. So what happens this year? I don't know. But what I want to tell people is, this is the time — a pandemic where people are scared, people are afraid. We have the ability that God’s entrusted us with resources in the shoeboxes to go over and share the Good News.
Because our team, Operation Christmas Child, has done such a great job of finding church partners and training local staff and volunteers on how to do it, the system is there. They're just waiting for the gift, the shoeboxes to come in.
So to our supporters, the time is now. If you did one before, we need two. If you did two, we need three, four, we need to multiply. I believe this is a time for multiplication to go out.
God knows the face of that child who is going to receive a gift this year and hear the Gospel message. So it's my hope and my prayer that you're faithful to it. God knows that child, and He knows the decision they're going to make. He knows that little child with the Himba tribe that is waiting to have that Gospel presentation and opportunity. Will you be a part of that? Will you be a part of that ministry that comes along and packs a shoebox this year? I hope so.
Different parts of the world [were] hit in different waves with the lockdown. Here in the U.S., I believe we might be in our third wave right now. Churches aren't able to meet like they were before, but we have ways around that.
We have build a box where you can go online, if you can't get out and you can't travel to the store, or you're concerned about traveling to a store, you can build one online, and we'll have a box built for you. If you feel like packing one, pack two to make up for the person who can't pack one on their own that used to be able to.
We'll have the collection centers like we've always had, where we collect the shoeboxes and we package them and go through them. Those will be a little different because we had to abide by local laws for social distancing, but it's going to happen this year. There's not going to be many changes other than what the government's telling us we have to do.
CP: The Himba people used to go to the witch doctor for everything and now they're going to Jesus because they learned about the Gospel. What do you think when you hear that?
Graham: I think it's literally the scales being pulled off the eyes, the blinders that the Bible talks about and what evil produces. Here these people are getting freed from sin, from slavery, and to know the truth, and to know that they're loved and that their Savior died for them. That there's things in this Earth that are bigger than us, that man can't fix, that a witch doctor can't fix, that black magic isn't going to fix. To surrender and give it to the Lord, it is powerful!
It is an unbelievable testimony for me to watch when we were in Mexico in the mountains. I shared that I'm learning, and I'm being shaped, and I'm being encouraged by people's faithfulness. I looked at Pastor Jose, who continually went up there [in the mountains] week after week to minister to this village and God's rewarding those efforts.
You look at this pastor [Rizera], another giant. Everyone talks about my grandfather, and what a champion for Christ he was, and I admire him so much for that, and my father for that. But we are surrounded by giants; they're all around us. And a lot of them just go un-named, and we'll never know about them, the work, the martyrs that are out there.
This is an example of a pastor who is faithfully answering the calling. He is going after people who he did not know, he had no relationship with, he has built a relationship, but he had a burden and his heart ached for them.
To go down there and see miracles happened in years and years of darkness and sin and habits formed. They were an animalistic culture. So mostly, they believe in spirits and trees, they worshiped tree spirits. To see that mysticism and that type of lifestyle quickly changing, only God can do that!
If you've ever been around those cultures, you know you can't penetrate it. It's very difficult if man goes in there and tries to change it. Man didn't do this, a pastor didn't do this. God, the Holy Spirit preceded him. He was just faithful and it's so encouraging to me. That's why I got to get there. I got to meet this guy to shake his hand and to learn from them, and to be inspired by his passion and his boldness.
CP: How can you encourage everyday people to realize that they, too, can be a part of spreading the Gospel to the ends of the Earth?
Graham: I've seen so many stories. I've seen it with a little girl. I was in Tarawa, which is out in the Pacific. This little girl, she opened up her box, and I watched it. Of all the hundreds of kids, I keyed in on her. She smiled and all those toys were in there, but she pulled out a card that had a picture of a couple, I want to say they were from Maryland, and they packed the shoebox and wrote her a note.
They can speak English there along with their native tongue, so I read it to her. I took a picture of her and I just put it on Instagram and apparently, someone followed me that knew that couple. They sent them a note and they were just so excited. They got to see the little girl that received their box all the way out in the Pacific.
You might not see the child that opens your shoebox, you might never have a relationship with that child, but if you want to share the hope of Jesus Christ around the world and you feel like you can't right now or you feel, "What can I do? I'm stuck in my house with this, this pandemic." Well, if you're scared or your children and grandchildren are scared, what do you think these children around the world are?
This is something that families can get behind. If you're a grandparent or you're a mother or father, and you want to teach your kids about missions, and the work that's going around the world and supporting pastors, this is what pastors want and this is the tool that you get out there to the unreached.
It's so easy. It really is so easy to pack a shoebox. If you don't feel like getting out, go to Samaritanspurse.org to OCC and you can build one and go to build a box and actually build a shoebox. You pay for it, we build it for you. But know that it's not about the toys. It's about that Gospel presentation that train staff around the world and thousands of volunteers who make this happen.
It starts with volunteers here in the U.S. who pray over those boxes and then we continue to pray over them as they ship. They pray when they're received in-country and they're prayed over to distributions. And God answers those prayers.
Thank you to those who have been a part of it and that have done it in the past. We need you more now than ever. If you're thinking about it or you didn't know if it was a ministry worthwhile, I promise you it is. It's one of my favorite things about Samaritan's Purse, and I stand behind it 100%.
For more information on how you can get involved in helping people like the Himba tribe and others around the world by packing gift boxes, visit Operation Christmas Child.