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Sometimes the Starfish Story Doesn't Work

We all know the story, right?

Call me skeptical, but I wonder, why didn't the young woman run and go get her friends? Why didn't she call some sort of wildlife society to help her? Was she really the only person who cared about starfish? And what if, inadvertently, her starfish-saving effort was actually killing them as they fell upon the rocks?

Yeah, I know. That's not what the story is about.

The heart behind the story is that we can't help everyone, but we can help some. That is inspiring. And we should be inspired--because no one can change the world, but we can all make a difference.

But....what if the starfish-saving girl had wonderful intentions, but she actually could have made a bigger difference if she had a better strategy?

I created a lot of controversy with my last post about Christmas shoeboxes. One of the things I heard several times was, Sure, the boxes might not be effective for every child, but it doesn't matter as long as they make a difference in the lives of some.

I love the creativity of Christians in South Korea, who send tracts, flash drives, and Bible literature into North Korea attached to balloons with hope that they will bring the gospel to some. And that's awesome--because there aren't many other options for sending hope into that desperate country.

But what if, one day, the walls around North Korea come down? The country finally opens up to anyone who wants to enter. Would it still make sense to send in balloons? Of course not. Because there would be far more effective and strategic ways to get the gospel to North Koreans.

Think of it this way: What if an American church decided to try the same idea? They think, Hey, everyone knows someone who became a follower of Jesus by reading a tract. So the church spends thousands of dollars to purchase millions of tracts, charter a plane, and dump them over major cities in America.

It would create a huge mess. It would make a whole lot of people really irritated with Christians and probably turn them off to ever wanting to hear the gospel. But as long as some people get saved, should we dismiss the nay-sayers? Or....should we ask if this is an effective strategy to share the gospel with Americans? Would it be the best use of that money?

And this is where OCC shoeboxes come in. Because yes, of course, I am quite certain that there are some whose lives are forever changed because they received a shoebox. God can use whatever means he chooses to bring people to himself, and I have no doubt that has included shoeboxes.

But we are God's stewards. Shouldn't we be looking for the most effective, most strategic use of the money, time, and opportunities he has given us?

Should we be satisfied with just reaching some when actually we could use our resources more strategically to reach many?

If you were able to read any of the comment threads on my post or on Facebook, you will have seen dozens of eyewitness stories of OCC boxes. True, a few of them are positive. This is the best one: "We did use the 'Greater Story' books in Romanian as a discipleship tool over 3 months in almost 30 very poor households, and most stayed with it."

However, the majority of stories are entirely different. Here's a sampling:

"The Christmas boxes came to the Central African Republic a few years ago. The people who wanted to receive the boxes had to pay the equivalent of $2 to receive a box. Rumors were widely spread that some boxes contained tickets to the US and/or the names of people in the US who wanted to adopt children....Nearly all the things in the boxes could have been bought locally."

"We are in West Africa and we have not heard one positive story about OCC from here. My heart sinks when I see the boxes arrive in our area. Just this week I had to explain what play dough was and 'no you can't eat it'. Then a deodorant stick 'no it's not medicine for dry skin'. Then roasted salted sunflower seeds 'no you can't plant them.'"

"As a missionary in Zambia, I saw the boxes come in April and kids physically fighting over the items. Kids came out of nowhere to clamor for and/or steal the items to sell on the streets. It was hard for me to see the kids I had been working with receive these packages and have other street kids come and harm them for the items."

"You can buy them off the street corners in East Africa."

"I have had contact with a co-worker who related that the men who unloaded the truck that came to their region were 'paid' in boxes. I found that horribly disheartening."

"I am a missionary in Panama and I see this all the time not just with OCC but any kind of 'gift' giving. We have tried to come into some villages and once they see we are not coming to bring them something the dynamics change and they just wait for the next missionary to come."

"I did see someone handing out boxes from a truck once and it was sheer mayhem. I will quote a local girl: 'Why do North Americans think a toothbrush, a pencil or a toy will make us happy. They pat me on the head and it's sad. I would love to have a conversation with them, laugh about life, cry about how hard life is. Pray together. But a little toy?? It's cheap and easy.'"

"Zambia here - the amount of corruption surrounding OCC here is appalling. As our local pastors have said, 'The national team has built an empire off of this 'ministry' ... but I guess we don't have to deal with it this year since they blacklisted our entire province for whistle blowing."

"In Tanzania we saw shipping containers full of these shoe boxes; they were completely unpractical for the tribe they had been sent to. A huge waste of time and money. In Namibia you can buy a shoebox at the mall over Christmas."

"This, in Ghana: One of our pastor friends spent half of his monthly salary to 'buy' boxes for his ministry. He divides and organizes the items in all the boxes and hands the items out to his church children (or whoever he wants--our children enjoyed some Starbursts from those boxes) throughout the year. Women from town "buy" the boxes to resell the items at market. To my knowledge, the Bible lessons are not utilized. Whoever can buy gets the boxes."

"Where I am in Uganda, the boxes are delivered between March and May. One of the staff workers at the Bible college I was helping at offered me Nerds and a stuffed bear, both from a shoebox she had purchased from her church (she is 'well-to-do'). My understanding from her was that her church in town had received the boxes in May and were charging everyone a small fee. Members of the church would then purchase the boxes and give the gifts to their children."

"The money paid by the families was supposedly for the extra distance for the boxes to be trucked to the south of Madagascar. Those who had received the boxes were then approached by other people outside the church who wanted to buy them and sell the items at the markets. Friends in a nearby village asked me to explain what some of the items were. Didn’t know what lip gloss was. The plastic toys were found half buried and broken in the sand around their huts. Toothbrushes and toothpaste are seldom used and not replaced when those received in the shoeboxes had run out."

"I know I've seen and heard of the negative impact in 3 of the places I've lived, and I haven't yet seen good fruit."

"Our church received shoeboxes several times, and as pastors, my husband and I didn't get any of the discipleship material that is mentioned."

"In the country we serve in (Niger, west Africa) our local churches usually receive the shoeboxes in April. Often close to Easter. As far as I know (and we have served there since 2008) we have never seen any gospel literature or discipleship programmes."


Friends, I'm not saying that Samaritan's Purse is evil or that OCC is never a good option. This isn't just about OCC shoeboxes. I'm using OCC as an example because it's one of the most popular charities in developed countries. But really, all of these thoughts could be applied to any charity or gift-giving effort--even in America.

There is a bigger picture here, and there are more important questions we must ask.

If a ministry is helping some, but in the process causing damage to a lot more, shouldn't we be paying attention?

Is the ministry taking into account cultural and worldview differences, or is it a 'once-size-fits-all' approach?

Is the ministry looking towards development--helping people make their own lives better--or just a temporary band-aid? Is it meeting an actual need or an assumed need? 


One person asked me what kind of things people should send to Tanzania as alternatives to shoeboxes. My response was Nothing

Please don't send stuff to Tanzania. Tanzania has a huge amount of untapped natural resources. Tanzania doesn't need stuff. If you want to invest financially in Tanzania, invest in training. Job training, pastoral training, agricultural training, or children's education

This is a matter of stewardship. Those of us from America or other developed countries are the richest people in the world--in finances, education, and opportunity. We absolutely are called to be generous. But we also must be wise in how we use the resources God has given us.

Find your few starfish to invest in, because everyone can make a difference in the lives of a few. They will probably not be people across the world, but right in your own community. Then, together, let's be strategic about the best ways to help all of them.

Grace, a couple of years ago. Don't worry, she put them back.

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