By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
Marla Cain’s vocabulary is rich with adjectives describing her journey. After all, she had been waiting for 16 years to arrive at this place.
Her destiny was sealed the first time she packed a little shoebox in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The West Virginia native, who now resides in Birmingham, attended ministry school at Calvary Chapel School of Ministry in Albuquerque. One of her class projects involved the Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Ministry. “I started it as a project and I never stopped,” Cain laughed.
She says that what really got to her heart was the thought that she could minister to a child so far away.
Her part of that first project involved the logistics of getting the donations collected in one place, packing the boxes and loading them onto trucks for shipment.
As time went on, Cain continued to work with the ministry, which was started in 1993 by Franklin Graham, son of world-renowned Evangelist Billy Graham.
Since then, more than 100 million boys and girls in over 130 countries have experienced God’s love through the power of simple shoebox gifts from Operation Christmas Child.
Working with local churches all over the United States, Samaritan’s Purse delivers the gifts, sharing the life-changing Good News of Jesus Christ with children in all parts of the third-world countries. "The organization distributes as many as 9,000 boxes per year," Cain explained.
“God put Africa on my heart for the last seven of those 16 years,” Cain continued. “I waited and waited for him to open the door of opportunity.”
And finally, He did just that. This spring, 38-year-old Marla Cain was invited to accompany approximately 90 volunteers with Operation Christmas Child to Uganda, Africa.
Their flight arrived in the middle of the night. Her first impression of the place she had so longed to visit was of its rich, spicy, earthy smell. “That’s the first thing I noticed because I couldn’t see anything, it was pitch dark,” she said.
As she sat in a bus waiting for everyone to board for the trip to the hotel, she remembers reverently thanking God for the opportunity to be there with the Operation Christmas Child project. “This is what I had dreamed of for 16 years,” she whispered.
In a journal entry, Cain wrote her impressions. “Africa is hot and humid and her people are beautiful! He welcomes us with flashes of lightning and a cloud cast moon. She breathed in my face and ran her fingers through my hair as I rode with my window open from the airport to the hotel, the full moon reflecting in Lake Victoria.”
She and the other volunteers, who had come from all over the United States, were to deliver the boxes themselves, so that they could see first-hand what the ministry was accomplishing in the lives of the children who would receive them.
The following morning, Cain awoke in a foreign land. “There was a beautiful drizzle outside my window, it was just a fine, dreamlike mist,” she described.
After breakfast the group attended a devotional, then visited the discipleship program, “The Greatest Journey”.
Then it was time for what she had been waiting for since she packed that first box — she was finally going to deliver one in person.
“This is what I’d been working toward for 16 years,” she said. “It was very emotional.”
Marla describes her first experience with the African children, “I'm standing in line with my teammates getting ready to file in for our first OCC shoebox distribution in Entebbe, Uganda. My heart is pounding and I'm forcing the lump in my throat into submission. I hear music and we begin to enter..... and I'm devastated. They're clapping — for us. Standing — for us. We make our way to our seats in the front and are forced to accept the attention we had planned to lavish on the people there. We are treated as honored guests. I hold hands with the “littles” sitting around me and they stare at me the whole time. Have they ever seen a white person? I wondered? They are dressed in the finest attire they could find. Fine, beautiful tatters. They are the most beautiful children I have ever seen.”
“We count down and present them with their boxes. I touch the cheek of every child I hand a box to, and feebly whisper "Jesus loves you, Little One,"knowing it is everything to them and still falls so short of the depth of its message.”
“How can I tell them in three words what they will need to cling to their whole lives? All that they will have to cling to.”
“They opened the boxes and it was apparent that they had never received a gift before that day,” she recalled. “They are told to open the lid and just pull things out, that the long piece of string is a jump rope. They were overwhelmed, blessed, and monumentally joyful. Maybe the most joyful they will ever be.”
After opening the boxes, Cain overheard one child say, “Look, Auntie Marla! Look how much God loves me!"
Out of the mouths of babes, comes the true essence of Operation Christmas Child, the love of Christ shown through a small box, making known that other people care about what happens in the lives of so many who have so little.
Her memories are poignant; they are with her constantly as she goes about her daily routine.
“Those children were hungry, thirsty, HIV positive, malaria ridden, and they served us Cokes in glass bottles,” she said in amazement. “I can't even imagine how much this cost them. I wondered, ‘God, who was today's blessing intended for?’” she said emotionally.
She describes the country as being very far removed from anything we know or understand. “I looked at the map and it was almost suffocating to realize that I was so far from home and family, in a place so unfamiliar to me,” she said candidly.
At one point, she actually stood with one foot on either side of the equator. “There were a few little shabby shops and a sign that read, ‘Equator’ with a yellow line drawn in the middle of a paved road,” she described.
Even now, Cain longs to return to Africa. “My heart yearns to be there, loving on sweet babies and receiving God's gentle correction for a life spent gorging myself on indulgences of every kind,” she said.
You can hear more of her journey, which covers half the globe, and a whole heart’s worth of memories and love, at the upcoming Operation Christmas Child Community Countdown Event, at 6 p.m. tonight, at East Side Baptist Church. Everyone is welcome to attend the non-denominational effort.
All church and organization representatives attending will be given free OCC decorated shoeboxes to give to their members.
Refreshments will be served by Chef Chris Villa, Culinary Arts Department Head at Wallace State and the ladies at East Side Baptist Church.
Everyone is Invited to the Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Ministry Community Countdown event at 6 p.m. tonight, at East Side Baptist Church.
A missionary will describe the reaction of children receiving OCC shoeboxes and the follow-up program, The Greatest Journey.
OCC is a non-denominational, Samaritan’s Purse Christian project. Contact Judy Taylor at Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church for OCC information (256-739-0505) or visit www.samaritanspurse.org/OCC.
Directions: Take the second Cullman exit off I-65 North (Highway 278) through Cullman. East Side in a new church on the left side of the highway.
Guest speaker will be Marla Cain:
Mrs. Cain is a career wife of one (17 years) and mother to two (11 and 8). It is her life's passion and greatest joy.
She spends her days unraveling the mysteries of the world while homeschooling. Stricken by a severe case of wanderlust, coupled with a desire for God's love to be felt worldwide, Marla's greatest passion outside of the ministry of her home is world missions and children's ministry. She has shared the gospel in Hungary, England, Mexico, Africa, and across the United States. She currently lives in Birmingham and is volunteering with Operation Christmas Child for her 17th season.