BYRON -- The shoe boxes are all the same. They are each 11 inches long, 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep.
They are red and green, the colors of the season, with white stars and letters. On top, there is an illustration of a gift box with a bow ... and wings.
You won’t find a pair of shoes in any of them. Socks, maybe, but no shoes. The contents of each box is different. They are filled with small toys, candy, toothbrushes, combs, Bible stories and notes of encouragement.
They have been packed in living rooms in Milledgeville, at kitchen tables in Eastman and church fellowship halls from Americus to Macon. They have been filled by moms, dads and kids after trips to the dollar store. They are the projects of Sunday School classes, Wednesday night supper meetings and morning prayer breakfasts.
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By Monday evening, about 42,000 Operation Christmas Child boxes will have arrived at ww in the Southeast.
They will come from 13 relay centers representing 400 churches in 22 counties. The diversity of the congregations are as deep and wide as the fields and rivers they crossed to bring them to Byron. There are city churches and country churches, big and small, black and white, affluent and struggling and almost every denomination -- Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal ... right down the line.
“You fill that box, pray over it, give it a little pat of love, then pack it up and send it off,” said Elaine Barfield, a member of Byron United Methodist and the central Georgia collections center coordinator.
Operation Christmas Child is a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse, which was founded by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham. It’s the largest Christmas project of its kind in the world and has collected and delivered more than 113 million shoe boxes to children in 150 counties since its inception in 1993.
Operation Christmas Child’s goal is to reach another 10 million children this year. More information about the ministry and a powerful video of children from around the world receiving their boxes can be found at www.samaritanspurse.org
“This is a ministry that is very important to our church,” said Barfield. “We work at it year-round.”
Several hundred shoe boxes were dedicated during last Sunday’s worship service. Church members formed a “human chain” and symbolically passed the boxes from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall following the sermon by senior pastor Tyler Plaxico.
Soon, they will be on their way to Atlanta, then halfway around the world.
Barfield has been the collections coordinator since 2008. She had always participated in the ministry at Byron UMC, which became one of the first churches in the area to begin participating in 1995, two years after it was started nationally. Byron UMC later took the lead as an area collection center. Andy Moore was the first coordinator, followed by Marle Usry.
Barfield became only the third coordinator in 19 years. She watched it grow from a seasonal mission project to a major ministry. In the early years, church members provided their own shoe boxes.
Now, Samaritan’s Purse issues the boxes, with labels on the lid to indicate whether the items inside are intended for a boy or a girl.
In the beginning, Barfield volunteered to help pack the boxes. She was not heavily involved. She was simply one of those who was willing to do her part.
Then, in a span of 28 months -- from October 2005 to January 2008 -- she experienced the death of two grandchildren, a brother and her mother.
It was then she said she “redirected” her life. She and her husband, Kenneth, have been married for 51 years.
“We had never been strong Christians,” she said. “We were what you might call pew Christians. We didn’t come to church all the time. I realized there had to be something in this life, and I had always had a love for children.”
She answered the call after Usry had to give up the coordinator duties when she returned full-time to teaching.
“God put me in this position,” Barfield said. “The first year I was scared to death. All I had ever done before was pack boxes. I had never worked in the processing part of it. I had to have volunteers and a schedule.”
The past week has been a flurry of activity. This weekend will be especially busy. Monday is the final day the boxes can be brought in. Barfield said individuals still have time to make their Christmas box donations through Monday.
The church received 2,880 cartons, and each carton will hold 15-20 shoe boxes. If every carton comes back filled, Barfield said it will take nine trailers to transport the more than 40,000 boxes to the Samaritan’s Purse processing center in Atlanta.
This year, the Atlanta center will send the boxes to one of 10 counties in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The countries are: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominica, India, Jamaica and Mali. (A box can be tracked to its destination by purchasing a special barcode.)
“To think that something I do that is so small will touch a child and then spread, means so much to me,” said Barfield. “Samaritan’s Purse says an average of nine people touch each box. It goes into a family with the parents, siblings, grandparents and neighbors. And it gives them a chance to know about Jesus Christ.”
Contact writer Ed Grisamore at 744-4275.