Guilt washed over me, soaking my consciousness as thoroughly as the water saturated my hair and washed over my face in the clean, white shower of my hotel room. A mere five hours had passed since I skidded down a sandy hillside on the outer fringes of Lima, Peru, hastily waving goodbye to the women and children whose faces are now etched into my memory forever.
“How can I so easily wash away the grime of the day while the children I left in the dust of those hills are just settling into their piecemeal cardboard, wooden, and tin shacks to sleep?” I reflected. Guilt-stricken thoughts raced through my mind as tears started to spill from the edges of my eyes.
My despair felt misplaced, an entirely unexpected emotion after spending a day witnessing more than 100 children receive shoe box gifts from Operation Christmas Child. Their joy was beyond compare.
One little girl was so excited that she just kept screaming, “Wow! Wow! Wow!” over and over again. Some of the items in her shoe box were a jump rope, pair of flip flops, bar of soap, a toothbrush, and several other small toys—none of which will serve to lift her out of the poverty of Pachacutec, the district where she lives.
The area, at the far northern edge of Lima, is crammed with jumbled wooden shacks that crawl up the steep, sandy hills and overlook the Pacific Ocean. They gradually taper off into tawny hilltops that blend almost seamlessly into the hazy sky.
One mother explained that like many others in the area she sold her home and land in the Andes Mountains and moved to Lima in hopes of finding a better life and work. She arrived with her family to discover that living in the city was too expensive. Without enough money to return to the mountains or get another home, she had no choice but to settle in one of the shantytowns of greater Lima and piece together a roofless shack out of cardboard and sticks, using a sheet of plastic to cover only the bed.
The majority of families in Pachacutec have electricity. But the area has no running water or sewer system. Water is trucked in several times per week, but the liquid in the 55 gallon drums is not potable and is nearly too expensive to use in necessary amounts. The water must be boiled in order to cook with or drink, and families rarely use it to bathe.
Since hygiene is poor, tuberculosis has become a problem, along with other contagious diseases. To top it off, the desert conditions and sandy soil make it impossible for families who are used to farming to grow any crops of their own.
The reality of thousands of people living in those conditions—surrounded by crime, drug use, abuse and disease—weighed heavily on my mind as I settled under the crisp white sheets of the springy mattress in my hotel. Sleep evaded me as desperation swirled through my mind.
“What hope is there for the children I spent a few fleeting moments with, sharing smiles and laughter, but unable to give them more than a hug and a few small items in a cardboard box?” I wondered.
Slowly, like a beam of golden sunlight streaming through a break in dark gray clouds, a phrase came into my mind. “God knows their names.” It began to take shape, latching onto my thoughts and gradually overpowering the desperation of the evening. God knows the names of each of the children living in Pachacutec, and He cares for them enough to send His only Son Jesus to die for them, so they may know Him eternally.
Some in the area already know this truth. On the way to the distribution, I passed a message emblazoned on one hillside: “Cristo vive”—“Christ lives.”
Finally, I remembered that a shoe box gift is more than a box of toys. It is a message of hope, the hope that is found in salvation through Jesus Christ. The shoe boxes are given to the children through local churches, and the most important part of the gift is not any physical item. It is the Gospel that is shared alongside it, explaining that Jesus is the greatest gift anyone could ever receive.
Local churches are able to use the shoe boxes as powerful tools to demonstrate the love of Christ. They will continue to minister to the children and their parents long after the physical items have worn out.
The pastor who coordinated the distribution in Pachacutec hopes to plant a church in the community. The tiny, donated building where the gifts were given out that day likely has become the talk of the town. Many children will return, bringing their parents along. It is my prayer that they will also obtain the hope of glory in Jesus.
The 80 children who received a shoe box gift are now participating in The Greatest Journey—12 Bible lessons, offered as a follow-up program that teaches children about salvation and living a life of faith in Christ. This truth, not the items in the shoe boxes, will give the children joy and an eternal hope that transcends their difficult living conditions.
This is the truth that brought peace to my troubled thoughts.
“To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Colossians 1:27 (ESV)