By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
More children around the world will have a very Merry Christmas, thanks in part to a record-breaking Operation Christmas Child collection year.
Throughout the year, churches of different sizes and denominations filled shoeboxes for the ministry of Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse organization. And by the end of National Collection Week – when individuals and churches dropped off their shoeboxes at major collection centers in the United States from Nov. 17-24 – more than 135,500 boxes were collected in Louisiana alone.
That’s a 6.5 percent increase from 2013, according to Matt McClelland, Texas/Louisiana regional manager for Operation Christmas Child.
“Louisiana continues to support Operation Christmas Child in an amazing way, growing in shoebox numbers each year since 2005, and growing from a total of 13,000 shoeboxes in 1999 to over 135,000 in 2015,” McClelland said. “We are thankful to every church, group, family and individual who packed a shoebox this year. Our internal surveys indicate that around 10 people hear the gospel through every shoebox, so we are excited that the people of Louisiana have made it possible for 1.35 million people around the world to hear and experience the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Of the 10 major collection centers that were in Louisiana, eight were Louisiana Baptist churches and another was New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Once they reached the Louisiana collection centers, those shoeboxes were trucked to the processing center in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area, and then potentially to children in Togo, Lithuania, Latvia, Macedonia, Peru, Guyana, Ghana and Niger.
Joycelyn Slaton was among the Louisiana Baptists who traveled to the processing center in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
While there, Slaton met Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse.
Slaton called her visit there an amazing experience that she will never forget.
“It’s such a blessing to have been such a part of this,” said Slaton. “To know you are doing some good and that these children are hearing about Christ is so rewarding.”
Slaton is a member of First Baptist Church in Morgan City, which served as one of the 10 major collection centers in the state. Like many churches, they exceeded their collection goal.
The church collects items throughout the year, even designating a room specifically for Operation Christmas Child. Every month, the congregation collects a certain item that is then used to fill boxes not long before National Collection Week.
“It’s such a rewarding ministry,” she said. “The last three weeks are really crazy but when it’s over we breathe and thank the Lord it’s over and can’t wait to start the next year.”
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which also served as a major collection center, reported a 22.86 percent increase from 2013. Last year 9,910 shoeboxes were collected, compared to 8,088 the year before.
“We’d like to thank the many New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary students who volunteered to help receive shoeboxes from the community, as well as spouses of students and their children,” said Rita Hanson, area coordinator for the Operation Christmas Child Crescent City team. “It was a huge help to have the ‘muscle-help’ of students sitting in the atrium, and some gentlemen from the Bethel Colony South when we needed to load cartons of shoeboxes onto the semi-trucks.”
For its part, The Bayou Church in Lafayette collected 962 of the 7,062 boxes dropped off on its campus, which was a major collection center. The total was nearly 1,000 more than last year, according to Ben Coleman, adult ministries pastor at the church.
“This was our fourth year being able to serve as the collection center from our area and we could not have asked for a better response from the community,” Cole man said. “Our church staff and volunteers helped us connect with local businesses, school clubs, city organizations and even the local media. It was great to see so many from the community give a box for the first time ever as well as see so many of our partnering churches grow in their ability to connect with the community. This truly was a year where we saw hundreds of people from different churches come together and serve.”
Pat Humphries, financial secretary at Florida Boulevard Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, said 13,509 boxes were turned in by members of the community. She attributes publicity as one reason for the increase at their major collection center site.
“Our people love it and really get into it,” Humphries said. “Anytime you can help a child, it just pulls on the strings of people and they are willing to do it.”
Further north, Fair Park Baptist Church in West Monroe reported its largest collection center year yet, with 18,186 boxes received.
The church first participated in Operation Christmas Child by collecting 30 boxes in 1993.
Darris Waren, minister of worship at Fair Park Baptist Church, said his congregation enjoys participating in the effort, which includes praying, offering encouragement and bringing snacks and meals for the workers in the collection center.
“Operation Christmas Child is one of the greatest ministries where the entire family and entire church family can participate togeth
er,” Warren said. “Everyone can pack a shoebox.
“Our Christmas at Fair Park would not be the same without Operation Christmas Child,” he continued. “It is the kick-off of the Christmas season as we all join together to share the love of Christ through a simple shoebox.”
Brad Jurkovich, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Bossier City, echoed the thought, noting that his congregation’s participation included shoebox wrapping parties and donating a portion of ticket sales from its Christmas spectacular to Operation Christmas Child. Some members from the church event traveled to Juarez to help distribute boxes.
“When you’re talking about a ministry you can partner with that will challenge your church to touch the world, this is it,” Jurkovich said. “We’re reaching kids and helping them.
“It’s one of those ministry avenues that your entire church can rally around, from kids to senior adults. That’s exactly what our church did.”