One local family's Christmas gift really did turn out to be the gift that keeps on giving.
Each year, the Greene family packages a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child. Sponsored by Samaritan's Purse, the annual project enables individuals to fill shoeboxes with small toys, school supplies and other personal items which are sent to needy children in third world countries.
As they do every year, the Greene's included a picture of their family and their contact information in the shoebox. Two weeks ago on a Saturday, Michael Greene said he was working in the yard when a mail carrier truck pulled into the yard with a delivery of a certified letter from India.
"And I told the mail carrier that I don't know anyone in India," he said. "So, my first thought was who had answered a phone call that they shouldn't have (of his four small children)â€¦. So, I opened the envelope and saw a copied picture of my family, and I said â€˜this can't be good.'"
As it turns out, the picture was the one from their OCC shoebox gift, and was accompanied by a letter from a minister in India. Sunny Raul operates a ministry called Light of Hope Association, which is an indigenous based, non-profit, non-denominational organization in Orissa, India, that reaches out to the tribal population. A child that lives at LOHA was the recipient of the Greene's shoebox gift.
Ms. Raul and Mr. Greene began communicating via email, and Monday night, the tribal missionary was in Thomson, Ga., where he spoke to the congregation of Antioch Christian Church on West Hill Street. Mr. Greene had picked up Mr. Raul at the Atlanta airport earlier that afternoon, and the two became acquainted during the drive to Thomson.
"We learned that we don't like the same foods, we don't do the same things, and we don't even like the same sports," Mr. Greene said. "But, we love the same God. And I think it's special that God brought him here."
It was Mr. Raul's first trip to the United States - he had arrived in Texas only a few days before, and he was headed to a church in Michigan. As he began speaking to the small congregation at Antioch, Mr. Raul first explained that he only had been speaking English for seven years, and promised to speak slowly so he could be understood.
"Every night, I memorized 20 or 30 words," he said. "So, all the words that I am speaking to you now, I had to memorize them one at a time."
With a heavy accent, Mr. Raul then shared his testimony of how he came to believe in God and practice Christianity even though he was raised in a country dominated by Hinduism. One night when he was in college, Mr. Raul said he prayed to God in desperation, challenging Him to prove Himself. When he received a real, material response to his prayer, Mr. Raul said he knew without a doubt that God is real.
"That day, I decided to be a missionary, to tell the people that God is the provider and He lives today. Since then, I have seen so many miracles in my life," he said.
Mr. Raul described the miracles of God's protection and provision for his mission, orphanage and school, which ministers to children, the widows and the single parents in the poorest state of India.
He showed a DVD of the children in his orphanage and school, and told the obstacles they face in their lives.
"Here, you have a problem of drugs or alcohol with the poor," he said. "We have no problem of drugs or alcohol. We have a problem of no food and no clothes."
There are 80 children living at LOHA currently, but Mr. Raul said his vision is to help 1,000.
"They don't complain, even when there only is enough money for one meal a day," he said. "I ask them what they want, and they do not want another meal. They say they'd rather have a playground to play Cricket."
Mr. Raul's other vision is to reach one million souls for Christ by the year 2020 - a big goal for his staff of 14 ministers in a country where religious militants attack each other. The DVD also showed footage of last August, when Orissa suffered the worst-ever spate of anti-Christian violence in the country's history. The wave of attacks lasted for more than two months, killing more than 70 people, and burning over 5,000 homes and churches.
"That was phenomenal video footage, very inspirational," Katie Wakeland said. "It put persecution into perspective for me. As I was listening to (Mr. Raul) speak of wanting to reach so many people, it made me think how I wake up every morning with a sudden sense of urgency that we have so very little time left."
Those in attendance Monday evening at Antioch expressed a desire to help Mr. Raul's ministry financially and sponsor a child. Mr. Raul said $15 a month would provide a child two meals per day, clothing and school supplies. But currency exchange causes a problem, and Mr. Raul would not accept any money to take with him. Donations must be sent directly to the mission via Western Union. Because Western Union only allows a certain number of transactions per month before they implement a fee, Mr. Raul said he prefers the church members pool their donation and send it all at once. The members discussed making monthly donations, and helping to raise other funds for LOHA.
"It was an honor and a privilege to have him here," said Susan Pilgrim, whose husband, Larron, pastors the church. "Here in the U.S., we don't realize we have Christians all over the world, and we need to help each other. We as Christians ought to take our responsibilities seriously."
Antioch Christian is located in Thomson on West Hill Street, between the Family Y and Joesbury Insurance. Anyone wishing to make a donation to LOHA, may send a check made out to the church, but marked with LOHA on it, to P.O. Box 1293, Thomson, Ga. 30824 or call 706-595-7878.
For more information about LOHA, visit www.lohamissionindia.org. For more information about Operation Christmas Child, visit www.operationchristmaschild.org.
1) preacher -- cutline: Sunny Raul operates a ministry called Light of Hope Association in India. He spoke Monday night at Antioch Christian Church.