Christmas charity causes controversy

Shannon Mullen, PhysEd ’07, and LolaJean Gentles, PhysEd ’08, man the table for the Tree of Life charity at the PEC. CESA is also accepting donations at the JDUC.
Shannon Mullen, PhysEd ’07, and LolaJean Gentles, PhysEd ’08, man the table for the Tree of Life charity at the PEC. CESA is also accepting donations at the JDUC.

Concerns raised last year about the religious affiliation of Operation Christmas Child—a charity that sends boxes of presents to children in developing countries—has prompted the AMS to stop distributing the boxes on campus this year.

However, the boxes appeared once again on campus after a group of students in a Commerce course approached Residence Life (ResLife) about helping to publicize and distribute the boxes. The group said they knew of the charity’s evangelical affiliations, but didn’t perceive a potential for students to be unwilling to participate because of that fact.

“I wouldn’t have seen the implications, just from my background I would never have had the debate,” said Marius Spengler, an exchange student from Germany in Commerce who acted as a spokesperson for the group. “It seems to me that the most important thing was that the word ‘Christmas’ was included, and I never really thought about it before that it would be an issue.”

Operation Christmas Child is a program run by Samaritan’s Purse, which is described on their website as a “non-denominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world,” and an organization that “serves the Church worldwide to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Operation Christmas Child delivers the shoeboxes to children as part of their missionary work.

“We are not going to be doing it this year,” said Joanna Lazier, AMS Volunteer Crew co-chair. “Basically, the Samaritan’s Purse is a religious-based organization, [Operation Christmas Child] is a religious cause, [and while] we do feel it is a good cause, if someone was interested in it, they could get involved with it through their church and anywhere else that was doing it.”

Lazier said the group chose not run Operation Christmas Child this year because they did not want to encourage people to participate in the project if they didn’t understand the religious nature of Samaritan’s Purse.

According to Samaritan’s Purse’s website, 735,690 boxes were collected in Canada in 2004. The Commerce group said 28 boxes were distributed in residence this year, six of which were returned filled. The boxes were collected on Nov. 12 and sent to Operation Christmas Child.

“I can only say again that I never felt that this might be an issue, that [Operation Christmas Child] is a Christian organization, and now I feel that is the main issue that is coming up,” Spengler said.

Spengler added that they were approached with concerns by one don.

“I think it was our main goal to help somebody and when [concerns with the program] came up, I just didn’t understand it,” he said.

The same don, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared he would face repercussions from ResLife because he has voiced his opposition to the project, said he brought his concerns to various ResLife staff, including Lori Rand, coordinator of educational programs for ResLife.

The don said Rand agreed to a sit-down meeting after they corresponded through e-mail regarding his concerns.

At the meeting, which took place two weeks ago, he said he asked ResLife to apologize and organize a non-denominational alternative.

“[In response,] she said they were going to continue with Operation Christmas Child and they would make arrangements for a non-denominational option—but they never made these arrangements,” he said. “I felt she wasn’t interested in what I had to say.”

The don said he raised the concerns because he feels residence should be a place of inclusivity.

“By supporting this charity, is residence giving a tacit approving of this message? By participating, are they saying this is OK? It’s not like this is the only charity in town,” he said.

However, Rand told the Journal in an interview that no one had raised concerns about Operation Christmas Child with ResLife.

“No, there haven’t been, not in general, no,” she said.

Rand said ResLife was not running the program, but advertised it to dons in their weekly bulletin. She said they don’t discriminate on the types of events posted in the bulletin.

“Well, obviously with everything we do in residence life we want to be cautious and aware of the information we provide to students with anything else,” she said. “Any events that we allow dons to participate in, well, it’s their screening process whether that is appropriate for their students.”

She added that 529 educational programs have been run in residence to date.

Rand said the boxes were also made available in ResLife offices.

“Operation Christmas Child boxes were available upon request, however, I am unaware of any that were distributed to dons,” she said.

The Limestone District School Board decided this fall to not allow Operation Christmas Child to operate in their schools.

Brian Devlin, executive assistant to the director/supervising principal with the Limestone District School Board, said in the past, the charity had run in a handful of their schools. But programs with a religious affiliation are not allowed in public schools, he said.

“We did some investigation and we looked at the website of this organization,” he said. “This particular organization, if you check out their website, is very closely aligned with a specific faith organization.”

Devlin said organizations are not allowed to fundraise or advertise in schools without permission of the director’s office.

“We did not have a request from this particular organization [Operation Christmas Child] and there were a few schools involved in the past year,” he said.

Spengler said because his group only received a small number of boxes back from the Operation Christmas Child drive, they are running another fundraiser next week to support Tree of Life.

Organizers of Tree of Life said it has no religious affiliations. The charity provides Christmas gifts for kids in Kingston who are from low-income families.

The charity is run jointly by this Concurrent Education Students Association (CESA) and Physical and Health Education Students Association (PHESA).

Shannon Mullen, PhysEd ’07 and the PHESA co-organizer of the project, said the names of children who will benefit from the charity are provided by the North Kingston Health Centre, in conjunction with Better Beginnings Kingston. Students interested in helping with Tree of Life can pick up a child’s name in the PEC or JDUC today. The gift of between $20 to $25 should be returned unwrapped. Children, whose names are hung on the tree, range in age from newborn to 15 years old.

Lazier said the AMS Volunteer Crew will also be participating in an alternate charity event.

“We are going to be entering a house in the Habitat for Humanity gingerbread house competition to help raise money for them,” she said. “There is a bit of a religious connotation [with this project], but we are doing this as a committee and not sending it out to our listserv.”

Devlin also said that the schools of the Limestone District School Board will be participating in other seasonal charities.

“We are looking for many ways to help situations where need be,” he said.

“We think giving and charity are extremely good, not specifically aligned with a faith group.”

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