Bill Pfister: We’re seeing God just do incredible things through evangelism, through discipleship. And we say multiplication because then the church begins to grow. Unreached people groups are contacted with the gospel, children learn how to share the good news with others.
Boxing Up Hope with Operation Christmas Child – Episode #275
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child, the world’s largest Christmas project of its kind, has collected and delivered more than 188 million shoebox gifts to children. Their goal for 2021 is to collect enough shoebox gifts to reach another 9.7 million children. They have nearly 575,000 volunteers worldwide who are involved in collecting, shipping, and distributing shoebox gifts.
On this week’s special episode, we’ll hear from three people with amazing connections to Operation Christmas Child, who share personal stories of how God’s love was demonstrated to them in a tangible way, through a simple gift presented in a colorful shoebox. For many children, this shoebox is the first gift they’ve ever received.
First up, we’ll hear from Bill Pfister, who’s the senior regional director of Operation Christmas Child, also known as OCC, for the Americas and the Caribbean. Bill gives us some insight into the mission and inspiration behind the organization, and how they’re reaching children from all over the globe to show them God’s love.
A Look At Operation Christmas Child
Bill Pfister: My name is Bill Pfister, and I work with Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child as a senior regional director for the Americas and the Caribbean. I’m married with three children, three grandchildren, and a pastor, a missionary, and have spent a lot of time in Latin America and the Caribbean seeing the gospel shared, disciples made, and coming alongside the local church.
My heart’s desire is to see people come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, to live for Him, to make Him known. And so my desire is to see as many people as possible come to know Christ and grow in Him. And that’s exactly what we’re able to do by God’s grace through Samaritan’s Purse and Operation Christmas Child.
Operation Christmas Child is a mission of Samaritan’s Purse, and what we want to do is to provide God’s love, to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way to needy children around the world and coming alongside the local church worldwide to share the good news of Jesus Christ. And it really is such an unusual ministry that I believe was born in the heart of God to connect churches in what we call sending countries with churches in receiving countries. And it all starts with a shoebox.
When friends or family members or a local church come together and pack gift boxes and then send them overseas, where a child is able to hear about the good news of Jesus in a local church, they are taught that Jesus is the greatest gift they can ever receive and that is a tangible expression of God’s love. We give the shoebox gifts to the children as we explain to them that Christ is the greatest gift. So children all over the world, about 11 million a year in around 120 different countries have an opportunity to participate in this ministry. About 80,000 local churches around the world in these 120 countries participate with us every single year. And so our goal is to see as many children and their families impacted by the good news of the gospel and to see the local church grow as a result of this. And so we talk a lot about evangelism, discipleship, and multiplication, as churches grow, as children learn to share their faith with family and friends, and as the local churches grow.
“When friends or family members or a local church come together and pack gift boxes and then send them overseas, where a child is able to hear about the good news of Jesus in a local church, they are taught that Jesus is the greatest gift they can ever receive and that is a tangible expression of God’s love.” – Bill Pfister
Anyone can pack a shoebox gift, and we have people in many different countries that pack shoebox gifts, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Finland. You can put in school supplies, toys, and hygiene items. I have seen so many children pull stuffed animals and dolls out of their box, and they’re just so thrilled because many of these children have never received a gift in their entire lives. Soccer balls and pumps for them also make great gifts.
We’ve even seen some of the most unusual things come in a shoebox, but you could tell that God designed that gift for that particular child. I’ve seen winter snow skiing gloves delivered to children in Africa. And you might think, Well, that’s really not going to be helpful at all. But the particular child that received the gloves said it was the perfect gift for him because his job was to help move the food in a cooking pot off of the fire to the table where it was served, and these gloves would prevent his arms from being burned.
And I remember hearing about a child in Colombia that, interestingly, was hearing impaired and found hearing aids in his shoebox. Now, the thing that we wonder about is What did they fall out of somebody’s ears and into the box by accident, or did somebody purposely put them there? But what I know is that in God’s plan, they arrived at just the right person at just the right time. So anybody can pack a shoebox with school supplies, toys, and hygiene items [which] are so appreciated.
Again, we’re seeing God just do incredible things through evangelism, through discipleship. And we say multiplication because then the church begins to grow. Unreached people groups are contacted with the gospel, children learn how to share the good news with others. That’s a little bit about the scope of Operation Christmas Child.
Narrator: Stay tuned to Vladimir Prokhnevskiy, an Operation Christmas Child shoebox recipient who grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, right after a brief message.
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Narrator: Next, we’ll hear from Vladimir Prokhnevskiy, a shoebox recipient who grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, in an impoverished family of eleven. Vladimir remembers one harsh winter when he and his siblings underwent extensive travel to get to an Operation Christmas Child distribution center, and how that gift impacted his life.
Vladimir Prokhnevskiy’s Story
Vladimir: My name is Vladimir Prokhnevskiy, which is a huge, huge name, and I am a shoebox recipient from Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child. I received a beautiful and colorful shoebox from Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child when I was only nine years old. And let me tell you what a blessing that was, not only for myself, but also for the whole family. For me, it was extra special because it was my first Christmas gift ever. But most importantly, the gospel came with it.
“For me, it was extra special because it was my first Christmas gift ever. But most importantly, the gospel came with it.” – Vladimir Prokhnevskiy, on his shoe box gift from Operation Christmas Child
So I come from a family of nine children. My father was an underground pastor in Kiev, Ukraine. My father risked his life preaching the gospel on the streets of Kiev at a time when it wasn’t popular or allowed. And because my father was a believer living in a communist country, he was hindered from advancing in society. My father had to settle for low-paying jobs, and every time he was captured and written up, it greatly affected his pay even more.
It got to the point where we had to take turns to go outside to play because we didn’t have enough shoes for everybody in the family. So I would take my shoes and put them on and go outside, play with my friends, come back, take the shoes off and give it to the next person in line. But sharing shoes is not the only thing we had to share. We also had to share our toothbrushes. So I would take my toothbrush out, brush my teeth, and then when I was finished, I’d give it to my mom, and my mom would wash it with hot water and soap, and then she would give it to the next person in line.
And we didn’t have access to a lot of toys, especially new toys. But it didn’t stop us from making our own toys. We made yo-yos out of Coca-Cola caps, and we played with our shoes pretending they were cars. Some days there were airplanes, boats. We pretty much used our imagination.
And as for food, we pretty much grew up on rice and potatoes, which I often jokingly say that we were vegetarians before it was even cool or popular. We grew up in a tiny, three-bedroom apartment with barely any heating or cooling. We didn’t have a washer and dryer, so my mom had to do all the laundry by hand. And because of the amount of laundry that my mom had to do, her skin would often crack and bleed. And then Mom, she would stay up and she would make socks and underwear for us out of old clothes or donated material. So we grew up in lack, and we didn’t have much. Birthdays pretty much didn’t exist, or a Christmas celebration. So we didn’t really have gifts. In fact, the shoebox was my first Christmas gift ever.
We received the news that we were invited to come to a Christmas celebration in the middle of a cold Ukrainian winter. We had to hop on that bus and then on a tram just to get to this place. We were lightly dressed and we were cold, but it didn’t matter because we were so excited to get to this place.
When we pulled up, I was walking in with a girl that I recognized from my class. I was very surprised to see this girl there because I knew that this girl was not a Christian. For some reason, I assumed that this event was only for Christians. But to my surprise, this place was filled with people from all walks of life. And when we walked into this place, it’s like we transition from this black-and-white Ukrainian winter to a colorful room of joy and laughter. There was so much happy music, beautiful welcoming smiles. But most importantly, they presented the gospel to us in so many different and unique ways through singing, dancing, cartoons, movies, animations, flannel boards. It’s like the gospel came alive. And then at the very, very end, they brought out these beautiful and colorful shoeboxes.
And when I opened my shoebox, it’s like everything that I imagined playing with as a child. This could manifest in real life because growing up I had to make my own yo-yos out of Coca-Cola caps. And now I had my own yo-yo, and my yo-yo was so beautiful, so colorful. I had to share a toothbrush, but now I had my own toothbrush and my toothbrush was like a rock star toothbrush, it had so much color, so much personality to it. The way it was designed, it was so pretty. No one in my city had anything similar to that. And I also had these Hot Wheels cars. I didn’t have to play with my shoes, pretending they were cars anymore.
And everyone always wants to ask like, “What’s that one thing that you enjoyed out of the new shoebox?” And for a lot of people, it’s different things. My favorite, most memorable item was dental floss. And the reason why it was so memorable for me is because I like to think it was candy. And I remember thinking that [it was] some crazy candy you guys have in America. I got a lot of it together in a ball like a mint, popped into my mouth and my whole mouth was so numb from that mint.
There was a gentleman who was observing me from a distance. I could tell he was concerned, and so he came over and he tried to explain to me in his broken Russian that this is not candy. And he tried to explain to me, “This is for brushing your teeth.” At least that’s what I got out of it. And I remember thinking, Wow, how is this effective? A toothbrush is very effective, clearly, but how is this fancy string supposed to brush your teeth? And it wasn’t until many years later when we finally moved to the United States and we were at our first dentist appointment, and that’s when I found out what dental floss was really for. So let’s just say I felt pretty silly.
But, you know, over the years, you forget little details about the shoebox here and there, but you never forget how it makes you feel. And on that day, I felt loved. I was able to forget about all my struggles as a child living in a persecuted country and we just were able to be kids.
“Over the years, you forget little details about the shoebox here and there, but you never forget how it makes you feel. And on that day, I felt loved.” – Vladimir Prokhnevskiy
I always say that God is love. When you show love to people, you show God to people. When people experience love, they experience God, and once you experience God’s unconditional love, you will not walk away unchanged. In our culture, we need that kind of love, because in our culture, when somebody gives you a gift, they always expect something in return. It’s always conditional, it’s always transactional. But I was given a gift with no strings attached, unconditionally—I guess the only strings attached was dental floss. But it was a beautiful gift. And you never forget that love that when people pack the shoe boxes they pack them with so much love on the receiving end, you feel that same love that people pack it with.
I have two boys: I have a five-year-old and an eight-year-old, Ashton and Elliot, and we pack shoeboxes every single year. It’s a family tradition now. It’s a great example for my kids because I demonstrate to them what generosity looks like. We go shopping for these kids. I always try to pack everything that I always wanted to get at age nine. And so we go together, we shop, and I teach kids through packing shoeboxes what generosity looks.
I remember the first time we packed shoeboxes, the kids were like, “Well, can we keep this?” or, “Can we have this?” And I had to teach them that this is for somebody else. And I tell my story that I didn’t have those kinds of things, it was nice to get something so nice and brand new. And I explained to them the same thing. And they understand through repetition, through packing shoeboxes every single year, they get excited about it. And that’s what I want. I want my kids to grow up and be generous because generosity moves people’s hearts. Generosity is what unites people, it brings people together. I want them to grow up to be generous people, and packing shoeboxes helps them become generous. I love that.
“I have a five-year-old and an eight-year-old, Ashton and Elliot, and we pack shoeboxes every single year. It’s a family tradition now. It’s a great example for my kids because I demonstrate to them what generosity looks like . . . Generosity is what unites people, it brings people together.” – Vladimir Prokhnevskiy
Narrator: To wrap up our episode, Elvina Arventii, who also grew up in Ukraine, will share how Operation Christmas Child impacted her life as a little girl, and now, she’s volunteering with them now, in hopes of paying that kindness forward to others.
Elvina Arventii’s Story
Elvina: My name is Elvina Arventii. I currently live in California. I was born and grew up in the post-Soviet Union country of Ukraine. It was a very different experience than we have here in the United States. My family was big. I have six siblings and my parents. My parents tried really hard to provide for us, but a lot of times they couldn’t.
So my dad was working on the railroad and instead of getting a paycheck at the end of the month or in pay periods, they would give him a voucher, and he could use this voucher only in one store in town that belonged to the railroad. So you can imagine all the workers getting paid on the same day and going to the same store trying to get something. my parents, they were standing in a line all day long, trying to get into the store. And by the time you get in there, a lot of times all the shelves were empty. He had to bring home whatever was left on the shelves. Sometimes he would come back home and bring, you know, some household items. But at home, hungry kids were waiting for food. The main source of food for us was our own fields, where we were growing our vegetables and fruits, and that’s what we ate.
Christmas, it was always special. We waited for Christmas for a long time and sometimes were just counting days until Christmas, starting in July, and we love Christmas. My parents tried their best to make it special for us. We also attended local church, and at church they were giving us little gifts. Usually it was some candy and an apple, orange, and a few walnuts in the hard shell. Because they’re trying to prepare it ahead of time, sometimes those fruits that we had, they were already getting spoiled, but we still ate it because that was pretty much the only fruit you eat in the whole winter. So we really loved Christmas, and we always looked forward to having this experience. We didn’t have a wish list, we didn’t have lots of gifts, but that one special gift that we received was very special for us.
A lot of children, you probably have heard stories from Operation Christmas Child children who received shoeboxes. They were either orphans or that was the first time they heard about Operation Christmas Child, maybe they never heard about Jesus. They never heard of a prayer. But my story was different because I grew up in a Christian family. My parents, since I could remember, were taking us to church, even though it was a persecuted church. And sometimes we were meeting somewhere else, not in the building. I don’t have a lot of memories from that time because I was very young, but I always knew about God and I knew about prayer.
But one time—it is a story I will never forget—we didn’t have any real toys. I didn’t have a doll that would belong to me and I really wanted it. I’ve seen it before. I was begging my mom to buy me a doll. But my mom could not afford it. And she said, “If you really want something, you need to pray about it. If you want that doll, you have to ask God for it.” So I started praying. I never really knew how to do it on my own, and I never tried it before.
Well, in winter 1995, it was very cold. We were staying at home, we didn’t even have school, it was canceled due to weather conditions. So all of our children were playing inside a house, and we heard somebody knocking at the door. We didn’t have many visitors, so all of us children ran to the front door, and we had very special visitors, it was missionaries who were going from door to door looking for children.
When they came to our house, it was seven of us, so they came and they brought beautiful, colorful boxes. When I heard that this is for us and this is for me, I didn’t need to hear anything else. So I just dropped one box, and I remember holding that box and just thinking, This is something for me. That was something that I got, and it was very unexpected. It was a surprise, but I remember the feeling of running to my room holding that shoebox. I didn’t even listen to the message, what they were trying to tell me. I didn’t listen to what my parents were trying [to tell me], stopping me. I just ran to my room and I opened the box and I put it upside down, and I started going through my items and looking what’s inside.
When I was so busy doing that, my mom opened a box for my little brother, who was only two, and someone put a little doll in the boy’s box. And of course, I got it. For me, it was such a miracle, and for the first time, I realized that God is real and He can answer even the prayers of a little girl. And this was the first time that I remembered that I prayed and He answered, and it was very clear to me as a girl. So from that day forward, I started praying on my own and I started telling Him, “God, do you remember that box? Do you remember that shoebox? You answered my prayer and I know you can hear me, and I know that you can do so much more in my life.” And He sure did.
“For the first time, I realized that God is real and He can answer even the prayers of a little girl.” – Elvina Arventii
I was very grateful for people who packed the shoebox and just the smell of it and lots of color made a big difference in my life. I really had this inspiration, and I wanted to give back and help this organization as much as they could and pack a shoebox to send to a child, because I know how it feels to receive it and how much it means to children. I started volunteering with the Fresno Area Team. I’ve done it for several years.
But we are packing shoeboxes as a family, and my children are learning how important it is to me personally. I want them to learn how to give back because here in this country, they have so much that they need to learn how not to take it for granted. And also, I want them to learn the mission of Operation Christmas Child Organization because I want them to learn that they are here in the United States. They have enough, but they can be a missionary here from the comfort of our home. They can send a message, they can pray for those children, they can pray for shoeboxes. I volunteer with the National Speakers Bureau team, so I help to spread the word and share my story. That’s what I do for Operation Christmas Child.
I have learned how to trust God. But sometimes when you look around in life and this world and this, you know, the past two years when there’s so much craziness going on in this world, it’s easy to lose focus on what is really important and focus on Jesus and trusting Him. But it’s great that we have Jesus and we can pray to Him, and He takes all our fears and our difficulties away. And we have this faith in Him. Just to have Him is important, someone we can talk to, someone we can pray to. I think that gives a lot of strength in our life and keeps us going no matter what.
Narrator: Vladimir, Bill, and Elvina will each read a section from Jesus Listens, December 25th.
Precious Lord Jesus,
When an angel announced Your birth to shepherds living out in the fields near Bethlehem, he told them: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great Joy.” This command to not be afraid is repeated frequently throughout the Bible. Thank You for providing this tender, merciful directive.
You know how prone to fear I am, yet You do not condemn me for it. However, I do want to break free from my inclination to be fearful. I’ve discovered that Joy is a powerful antidote to fear. And the greater the Joy, the more effective an antidote it is.
The angel’s announcement to the shepherds was one of great Joy! Help me never to lose sight of what amazingly good news the gospel is! The moment I trusted You as my Savior, You forgave all my sins—past, present, and future. This glorious gift of grace ensures that my ultimate destination is heaven.
Moreover, You gave me Yourself—the greatest treasure of all! You lavished Your Love on me and promised me Your Presence forever. As I ponder the angel’s wondrous proclamation to the shepherds, I rejoice in You, my beloved Savior.
In Your magnificent Name,
Narrator: To learn more about Operation Christmas Child, please visit www.samaritanspurse.org. National collection week is November 15th through the 22nd. If you’re interested in packing boxes, you can visit www.samaritanspurse.org/OCC to find out guidelines, learn how to pack a shoebox, and view gift suggestions.
If you’d like to hear more stories about giving, check out our interview with the Green family.
Levi Lusko: Prayer can be just being silent. “Be still and know that I’m God,” that’s prayer too. My wife and I have been married for over seventeen years, and we’re not always talking. You take a road trip, there’s talking, and then it kind of starts and stops. But we’re still together and there’s still a lot communicated in the silence.
So I don’t think you have to fill every second and fill all the air. It’s listening. It’s speaking. It’s just being together. I think that God wants you to be liberated in your prayer life and not feel like you’re a prisoner in it.