Abbotsford school stops charity giving due to religious concerns

Operation Christmas Child, which gives gifts to poor children, contravenes School Act: district

A Costa Rican child receives a shoebox from Operation Christmas Child.

Dr. Thomas A. Swift Elementary will no longer participate in a program that sends gift boxes to kids in need around the world, due to the religious practices of the organizing charity.

Operation Christmas Child (OCC) is an annual drive staged by Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian organization. Participants in OCC pack shoeboxes with toys, school supplies, hygiene products and other items, which are shipped to kids in a dozen different countries.

Swift students have participated in the program in past years but participation was pulled this year after the school’s principal “became aware religious materials were being added to the shoeboxes,” according to a district spokesperson.

“This was decided in consideration of the district’s administrative procedures and the B.C. School Act, which requires that public schools be operated as secular institutions,” Kayla Stuckart said in an email.

But there is no religious material added into the shoeboxes themselves, according to the Samaritan’s Purse spokesperson Frank King.

The shoeboxes are distributed to children who attend events put on by the organization, and Christian books and pamphlets are offered to, but not forced on, the kids afterwards, King said.

In Muslim-majority west African countries, where many of the shoeboxes are handed out, the events are explicitly advertised as Christian and still attract strong turnouts, King said.

Noah Lochbaum, a 12-year-old whose younger sister attends Swift Elementary, sent a letter to the district (which he shared with The News) expressing disappointment in the decision.

“So basically you are saying we should help people as long as there is no mention of religion,” he wrote. “Why can’t we just do the right thing and look at the big picture: human beings caring about and helping other human beings?”

Stuckart said Swift Elementary staff are looking at alternative options for charity participation around the Christmas season but will not do so through OCC.

“We want our students to develop empathy, understanding and respect for others, regardless of race or religion,” she said. “We will continue to celebrate Christmas, Diwali, Chinese New Year and many other diverse cultures that make Canada the great multi-cultural society that it is today.”