Thursday, December 20, 2012

Volunteering with Grace

A volunteer from Philadelphia is fired-up about participating in Operation Christmas Child
Toni Washington was going through some difficult times, but she knew she needed to take the focus off herself and find an avenue for service. God knew the desire of her heart, and He did not take long to provide her with a ministry opportunity big enough to keep her busy for years to come.

Toni had recently started attending Bethel, the Church at Franklin Mills, a non-denominational congregation in Philadelphia. The church served as a drop-off location for Operation Christmas Child, and needed volunteers to greet people bringing in shoe box gifts during National Collection Week.

Toni had never heard of the Samaritan’s Purse project; she thought it was a small ministry of her new church. The announcement must have been attractive though, because she signed up to greet on a Wednesday night.

Little did she know that simple decision four years ago would mark the beginning of an exciting new journey.

The night she volunteered she met Thom and Debbie Britschge. Thom was leading the Operation Christmas Child ministry at Bethel. The Britschges befriended Toni, prayed for her, and told her more about the program.

In the following year, Toni became even more involved. Since that time she and Thom have served together on their church’s compassion team, co-leaders for the Operation Christmas Child outreach. They are also year-round volunteers—relay center co-coordinators for the greater Philadelphia team. Thom, Debbie, and Toni also have all served as short-termers at the Charlotte Processing Center for three years.

The church has significantly expanded its outreach through Operation Christmas Child over the past four years as Toni and Thom have enthusiastically encouraged involvement at every level.

Tremendous Growth

“For our church, Operation Christmas Child gives really every single person an opportunity to serve,” Toni said.

The youth group folded preprinted boxes, the children filled gifts in the Sunday School classes (87 in 2012), and the seniors made reminder calls to churches that dropped off boxes at the relay center last year.

Operation Christmas Child is even being integrated into other ministries of the church. Bethel volunteers visit a local men’s shelter each month. One Sunday this October they organized a shoe box packing party at the shelter. The church brought toys and other items and the men placed them into shoe boxes. The residents “loved having the opportunity to fill a shoe box for someone else,” Thom said.

Overall, Bethel has increased its collection from 200 boxes in 2009 to 915 in 2012. As a relay center, they went from 1,500 shoe boxes to 3,700 shoe boxes this year.

“There’s no way we can say we did this,” Thom said. “That’s God working through Bethel.”

The group traveling from Philadelphia to volunteer at the Charlotte Processing Center has grown every year too, from 12 to 23 to 32. A total of 43 different people have made the trip, with folks ranging in age from 15 to 70 this year.

Those who make the trip usually become more involved as servant leaders in the church. “Everyone who comes leaves changed,” Thom said.

Toni’s parents, Leon and Barbara Harris, made the trip to Charlotte with their daughter this year. “I think this is awesome,” Barbara said. “I’m having fun; it’s not work.”

Barbara inspected shoe boxes and Leon, who is visually impaired, worked on packaging candy.

They also had a family packing party back in Philadelphia in November with Toni, her sister, her sister’s three children, and three godchildren.

“She (Toni) is so fired up about it,” Barbara said. “I’ve seen her grow.”

The Big Picture: Gospel Opportunities

Toni has certainly grown into an articulate advocate for Operation Christmas Child. “She does everything now,” Thom said. And her message gets straight to the most important aspect of the project.

Operation Christmas Child makes cross-cultural missions accessible to everyone. Not everyone can afford $1,500 to go on an overseas trip, Toni said, but they can still help a child in another country.

“That simple gift that we talk about is not the simple gift of toys. It really is the simple gift of salvation,” Toni said. “This (shoe box distribution) might be a child’s first opportunity to hear the gospel.”

As volunteers in Charlotte celebrated the sending of the 100 millionth gift-filled shoe box in early December, Toni summed up why she serves.

“The 100 millionth box means there are potentially 100 million children who know Jesus now,” she said.

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