A child in Batesburg-Leesville walks through a local discount store and spies a brightly-colored stuffed animal and a small board book with cartoon characters peering out from the cover.
“Mama, can we please get these?”
The boy’s mother nods and reaches for the trinkets. A few months later, that toy and that book land in a remote village in Fiji, where they are joyfully scooped up by another young boy or girl.
This is the magic of Operation Christmas Child, an annual ministry of Samaritan’s Purse, a faith-based charity led by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the famed late evangelist Billy Graham.
Launched in1993, Operation Christmas Child has since shipped more than 168 million gift-filled shoeboxes to children in more than 160 countries. Each fall, churches across all 50 states and in U.S. territories – including right here in Batesburg-Leesville and around the Ridge – urge their members to fill up shoeboxes with toys, school supplies, books and personal hygiene items.
Most of those shoeboxes are then sent to regions of the world where poverty and hunger are the harsh realities of everyday life. In some of those countries, these children – and whole villages, in fact – might never have encountered the redeeming love story of God sending His only son, Jesus Christ, to earth to save humanity.
“It’s incredible to see the difference a simple shoebox gift can make in the life of a child,” the Rev. Graham said in a release from Samaritan’s Purse, based in Boone, in the western North Carolina mountains. “They bring the message of unconditional love and forgiveness found only in Jesus Christ. There’s still nothing like seeing how one gift can impact the eternal destiny of a child.”
For the past five years, First Baptist Church of Leesville has served as the Batesburg-Leesville area’s regional drop-off point for Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. All this week, volunteers have gathered in the church fellowship hall in the late afternoon hours and waited to welcome Christ followers from other nearby churches and their filled shoeboxes.
“It allows churches in this area that don’t necessarily have time to go to Lexington to drop off their shoeboxes here,” said Karen Leonhardt, wife of FBC of Leesville’s pastor, the Rev. Charles Leonhardt. “There are a lot of churches in this area, and we see a lot of different denominations come in and drop off their boxes.”
In all, around 15 churches each year bring their boxes to the FBC of Leesville fellowship hall, where they are co-mingled with other churches’ donations. Among the area congregations confirmed to have collected Operation Christmas Child donations this year are Cedar Creek Church’s Ridge campus, Clydes Chapel Southern Methodist, East Side Baptist, First Baptist of Batesburg, Hulon Baptist, Leesville United Methodist, Mt. Ebal Baptist, Providence Baptist and Samaria Baptist.
“We average somewhere between 1,300 and 1,600 shoeboxes during the week,” Mrs. Leonhardt said.
All this week, the FBC of Leesville site has been opened from 4-6 p.m. to welcome shoebox donors from across the region. The drop-off site also will be open Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, Sunday from 1-3 p.m., and on Monday, the final day of National Collection Week, from 2-4 p.m.
Once received, the individual shoeboxes are packed into large Operation Christmas Child crates and stored, awaiting their next destination.
“We store the cartons in our church here, and next Monday we will pack them into a truck and we will take them to Lexington Baptist Church. From there, they pack them into a larger truck and they go to Charlotte,” Mrs. Leonhardt said.
Shealy’s Bar-B-Que graciously lends one of its large catering trucks to transport the thousands of shoeboxes to Lexington.
At processing centers in Charlotte, Boone, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Denver, Dallas and Fullerton, Calif., another layer of volunteers sifts through the shoeboxes, removes any prohibited or perishable items, and prepares the gift boxes for distribution. In 2018, more than 10.6 million shoebox gifts were collected, processed and distributed by Samaritan’s Purse.
“Franklin Graham was talking about this little boy who needed a jacket, and somehow his shoebox had a jacket in it,” Mrs. Leonhardt said. “There’s a story about a young girl who needed shoes, and her shoebox had shoes in it. God has a hand in who gets what and where. He knows what every child is going to get.”
Besides being a way to share special gifts with children living in some of the most depressed regions of the world, Operation Christmas Child has a much more significant — indeed ultimately, eternal — purpose.
“Spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Mrs. Leonhardt said. “Letting others know who have never heard about Jesus. It’s not just about what’s in the box. It’s about the gift of Jesus Christ and salvation. The box of stuff is just the vehicle that gets everybody there.”
In addition to welcoming fellow churches and their collected shoeboxes, the FBC of Leesville drop-off location does happily accept shoeboxes packed by individuals. Anyone wishing to donate should visit www.samaritanspurse.org, review the Operation Christmas Child “Pack a Shoebox” link for suggested (and prohibited) items, and bring the completed box or boxes to the fellowship hall during the designated times.
In addition to FBC Leesville, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Ridge Spring and St. Paul United Methodist in Saluda are regional drop-off locations. The Ridge Spring site is open this Thursday 5:30-8 p.m., Friday 4-6:30 p.m., Saturday 9-11 a.m., Sunday 2-5 p.m., and Monday from 7-9 a.m.
Story by Tony Baughman / Published November 21, 2019