As in years past, New Orleans Seminary served as the regional hub for Operation Christmas Child, the Samaritan's Purse ministry that annually sends Christmas gifts to millions of impoverished children around the world.
By the end of the day Nov. 22, more than 12,000 boxes packed with school supplies, candy, toys, clothes and more had arrived -- nearly a 35 percent increase from 2009. There were so many boxes that NOBTS professor Lloyd Harsch, who coordinates collection efforts at NOBTS, had to call in a second trailer to ship the gifts to the OCC processing center.
"The collection numbers increased at a lot of locations, so that's very exciting," Harsch said. "It's exciting to see the ministry get started in a lot of new places."
Eight new relay centers were scattered across the New Orleans metropolitan area: Hebron Baptist Church in Bush, Thompson Road Baptist Church in Slidell, First Baptist Church in Laplace, West St. Charles Baptist Church in Boutte, First Baptist Church in Westwego, Covington Presbyterian Church in Covington and Munholland United Methodist Church and Fellowship Baptist Church, both in Metairie.
And when the final numbers were tallied, one of the eight relay centers, Hebron Baptist, accounted for more than 40 percent of the total New Orleans-area collections. The rural congregation of about 200 packed more than 5,000 shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child.
How did Hebron Baptist Church collect so many shoeboxes? Pastor Sam Greer's wife Tonya recounted that it started with a birthday party three years ago and quickly grew into a church-wide passion.
"It started with my little girl's first birthday party, and it's just taken off from there," Greer said.
For her daughter's first birthday, Greer decided to make packing Operation Christmas Child gifts a centerpiece of the birthday party, which left an impression on church members in attendance.
Last year, Hebron's first as a relay center, the church collected around 2,000 boxes. The church increased that number by more than 2.5 times this year. Greer said she expects her church to aim for between 7,500 and 10,000 boxes in 2011.
With its 200 regular attendees, Hebron's 5,000 OCC shoeboxes this year translate to an average of 25 boxes per person. Greer, though, said this year's collection entailed plenty of collaboration.
"We have very few members who pack boxes individually," Greer said. "It really takes a church-wide effort for our church to do something like this."
Hebron's members watch store sales throughout the year and spread the word on Facebook and through text messages, Greer said. Members then buy clothes, toys and school supplies on their own and bring them to the church later in the week.
By collecting shoebox items throughout the year, Greer and other church members capitalize on seasonal sales like candy after Halloween, clothes after the end of the school year and school supplies at the end of summer.
Prior to packing the shoeboxes, Greer said church members store supplies in a borrowed Sunday School classroom and the church's youth building. Then, closer to the time to deliver the OCC gifts, church members meet for "packing parties" where they pack shoeboxes en masse and prepare them for shipping. Greer said the group strategy has multiplied what her church has been able to accomplish.
"It's unbelievable how our church has embraced this," Greer said. "And it's amazing the resources God has provided from our church."
FROM NEW ORLEANS TO THE WORLD
From New Orleans, the shoeboxes travel to one of several processing centers and then make their way around the world to kids in need. In some cases, shoeboxes arrive by Christmas. In other hard to reach places, the boxes will arrive later in the spring.
Regardless of the delivery time, each shoebox gift will be presented by a local Christian accompanied by a Gospel presentation.
"That allows the message of the Gospel -- the gift of Jesus -- to be tied in to the physical gift they're receiving," Harsch said. "It's a powerful evangelistic tool because it gives credibility to the local Christians. If have questions later on, they know who to go to."
Oftentimes, the OCC shoeboxes also make inroads between locals and International Mission Board missionaries serving there, Harsch said.
Samaritan's Purse encourages shoebox packers to donate $7 per box to cover shipping, and in return for making an online donation, shoebox packers receive a tracking number so they can follow their package online to its destination.
People also may pack a personal greeting inside their shoeboxes. In some cases, the people overseas who receive the OCC gifts write back. That's what happened when the homeschool group on the New Orleans Seminary campus, along with Gentilly Baptist Church, sent out some OCC boxes in 2009.
Debbie Smith, who works with the homeschool group as Missionary Service Corp outreach director for families and children in the greater New Orleans area, said the group knew their 22 boxes last year had gone to India and Kosovo. But it was quite a surprise when they were contacted by one of the recipients in India last summer.
Smith's husband first received a call from Jaideep Kuman, a pastor and orphanage director in Kakinada, India. Kuman later sent a letter and pictures by e-mail. The letter and pictures offer a glimpse of Kuman's ministry in India: "By faith and with a vision, I am ministering among the fishermen village where 100 percent . God has given much burden for children. I was beaten for the sake of preaching the Gospel. But through the drastic change of the children, I am able to win their parents.... We also have an orphan home for the children who lost their parents in the tsunami and also for neglected children," Kuman wrote.
Smith said she made a slideshow with the pictures and used them as inspiration for this year's OCC campaign.
"That was a real highlight for us," Smith said. "It helped to put a picture with their boxes they're not going out to nowhere. They're going to real people."
That inspiring message had an impact on giving this year. Smith said the homeschool group and Gentilly Baptist Church collaborated to send 36 boxes, and they're eagerly awaiting news of where this year's boxes will land.
Frank Michael McCormack writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
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