“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5, ESV).
I did not know the story the Lord would write upon my life as I carefully unpacked and admired every item inside my Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift.
I grew up in a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Although there was religious freedom on paper, in reality, it was unlawful to be a Christian, have a Bible, and be a witness for the Lord. However, John 1:5 is true: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
During my childhood, my country was also recovering from the USSR’s fall, resulting in a deficit and scarcity of everything: food, clothes, furniture, and toys. And yet, God used that difficult time to create “a window of opportunity” when my country’s government remained watchful yet allowed foreigners access in. Samaritan’s Purse saw an opportunity in that window to conduct an airlift that brought thousands of Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts to children in Central Asia.
I was nine years old when God used a simple shoebox gift to reveal Himself to me. Immediately beneath the lid of a purple plastic container, I saw puppy eyes peeking at me. As I pulled out a stuffed puppy dog, I hugged it tightly wishing I could keep it all to myself. I had never seen a toy this nice and this soft! My sister, cousins, and even friends in the neighborhood all got their turns petting and hugging this puppy dog. Nineteen years later, I still have this puppy dog that brought so much joy to a whole neighborhood of children.
As I slowly emptied my shoebox that day, there were many other exciting items, but my eye caught a folded blue piece of paper taped to the very bottom of the container. “I am praying for you. God loves you, Katie,” the letter said. When I translated these words, I felt something shift in my heart. I did not understand the meaning of those words, but why were they having such an impact on me? Why would I tuck them away in my heart and continue to wonder about this God for years to come?
As the days, weeks, and then months passed, I finally pulled out two thick English dictionaries and began writing my shoebox sender a letter. Hours later, I carefully folded my note and sealed the envelope. Just as carefully, I brought the letter to the post office. Several weeks later, I received a blue envelope soaked through with glitter. “Will you write me back?” the note read, forming a pen-pal friendship between my shoebox sender and me for years to come. All the future letters have also contained those same words: “I am praying for you.” Every time I read those words, my curiosity in God would rekindle and grow.
However, it wasn’t until 2008 when I came to the United States as a foreign exchange student that the Lord began to soften my heart and sprout to the surface the seeds that were planted during my childhood through the shoebox gift, letters, and prayers of the kind stranger from across the world. On October 25, 2008, I opened the door of my heart and received Jesus Christ in as my Lord and Savior. As Revelation 3:20a says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (ESV). I realized all these years, Jesus was patiently knocking on the door of my heart, never forcing Himself on me; instead, He was waiting until I was ready to receive Him.
When I became a believer in Jesus Christ, I thought my shoebox puzzle was complete. However, God surprised me with the biggest piece in October of 2015 when I had the joy of meeting the family that sent me my shoebox gift! They shared that when they finished packing my shoebox gift and began to pray for the child who would receive it, they felt led to pray specifically that it would go to a country that was closed to the Gospel and to someone who did not know the Lord.
Their prayers went forward with their shoebox gift as God orchestrated for it to be a part of the airlift during the “window of opportunity” and to be placed in the hands of nine-year-old me who did not know Him! As I learned about the prayer that accompanied my shoebox gift, I realized God used it to plant some of the seeds in my heart that eventually led me to a personal relationship with His Son Jesus Christ.
My story is only one out of millions of testimonies that the Lord has written upon boys’ and girls’ lives worldwide since the start of the Operation Christmas Child project in 1993. When someone packs a shoebox gift, it becomes a Gospel opportunity in the hands of local believers in the receiving countries. These ministry partners are committed to sharing the Gospel with children in their communities in child-friendly and culturally-sensitive ways. Now, more than ever, children need to hear about the love and hope of Jesus Christ. With the desire to reach children like me in hard-to-reach areas, more shoebox gifts are going to places where the Gospel has never been shared. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14, NIV)
Will you join us in reaching eleven million children with the good news of Jesus Christ this year by packing a shoebox gift?
– Yuliya Shubina, Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child shoebox recipient, Central Asia.