Shoeboxes are sent out just before Christmas to let people know they are loved and that people in the UK are thinking of them. Complete strangers destined to never meet, make an exchange between them. One is blessed to give, the other to receive. No strings attached, no need for gratitude, just a moment when each person is aware of the other.
Sometimes those exchanges don’t take place at Christmas time. Sometimes the shoeboxes that are sent at Christmas are so abundant in number that a few are left over. Not to waste away in some storage unit but to be used in a different way. To bring blessings to people at a different time of the year.
Recently Pastor Misha our contact in Lviv, Ukraine has come across a new set of people. On the outskirts of town he has heard about a new community of outcasts who people neither want nor care for. There is no running water, heating or light. Their homes are loops of metal bent into shape to enable tarpaulin to be draped across. They rescue doors from skips or rubbish piles to give the impression they are ‘homes’ trying to ignore the obvious holes, rain water and lack of ventilation. These people are ‘overjoyed’ to hear that the local council had decided to dump the municipal waste right next to their camp. A place in which they can scour and try to find items of value in order to sell alongside the wild fruit and other items that they have been existing on the sales of up till now.
Misha says “They live without water, gas, plumbing/sewage, and without healthy food. In this region of Ukraine, there are nomadic gypsy communities also. They stereo typically move to large, industrial cities during the warm weather seasons, because that is where they have the best chance of getting a little money. Ten years ago a group of them came to Lviv. It is a myth that they only steal and never work. For survival they work hard each day in order to make enough money for the next day, so that they can feed their families. They do not take days off because a typical family has up to 10 kids. During summer around 100 kids are out and about at these housing camps.
Each day, from village to village they collect scrap metal; from dumpsters they gather plastic containers; from forests they cut branches with specific berries, and in the fields they dig up horseradish plants. Then they take these items to places that collect them for pay.
The majority of gypsy families stay in forests among the mud during winter because they have no other housing option. In the three gypsy camps here, everyone is illiterate – not just kids, but the adults, too. No one knows how to read, although they have the desire to learn.
Their housing is honestly difficult to describe because it is made up of anything that they can collect from dumpsters. They have no windows and they have nothing to heat the place. There is no way because up to ten kids live in these shacks, and it is a shock for people to even comprehend how they can live through the winter months. The conditions in a gypsy camp are like the worst sense of a ghetto. There is no sanitation, walls without windows, open sky instead of roofs, and bare ground in place of flooring. Gypsies have no medical care; in the past month already two kids have died. They gather water from puddles; their toilet is the forest. All around them are piles of rubbish. It is so strange that in the middle of civilization you can find this little “islands” of sorts, like zones of separation from the rest of the world. There is no fire caution here; last week 3 shanties burned down, along with their belongings, clothing, bedding and blankets. They are left with nothing – literally naked and barefoot.
I have observed that they don’t need people to feel sorry for them and their daily life because in their own way they are happy. But who can care for them, if not us as Christians? We need to help them in their spiritual needs and introduce them to the One who can change them – He can change not only their insides, but also their living conditions. They can be helped to transform, which will, beyond the shadow of a doubt, change their way of life. They are open; each evening I speak with them a lot about spiritual things, and on Sunday some visit our church and also visit various youth ministry gatherings. We want to set up a class for them – to teach literacy to both kids and adults alike. We’d like to build them some kind of bathroom, shower, and playground for nicer weather. We’d like to do kids camps, teach the kids how to make food, cut hair, and maintain basic hygiene principles. We’d like to purchase simple dishes for them.
Therefore in the future we have great plans for these gypsy camps”
So Misha took your shoeboxes to them full of wonderful gifts of shower gel, shampoo, plasters, knitted hats, scarves, games, cuddly toys, reading glasses, sweets, tools, candles and other gifts to bless them. Not Christmas gifts but items that are sorely needed in the environment they are living in right now. They were amazed by such gifts and opened each box with wonder, even the outer cartons were taken away and used. Shoeboxes in the Spring? We hope you agree that to bring comfort and hope to people with the gift of your shoeboxes is what matters, not when they are given out.