(RNS) This holiday season, Operation Christmas Child volunteers will pack 9.5 million shoeboxes for poor children around the world. The boxes, full of toys, clothes, and hygiene items, will be shipped to more than 100 countries by the evangelical relief organization Samaritan’s Purse in what has become perhaps the best-known global outreach project among American Christians.
The project’s draw is old-fashioned personal charity, with a global twist: a box stuffed in an Indiana church hall might end up in the hands of a child in Myanmar.
But I found that many Americans are now doing personal charity on a global scale without the help of mega-organizations like Samaritan’s Purse.
Since 1990, Americans have registered more than 10,000 new international charities. These grass-roots groups based in the U.S. rely on volunteer labor and have tiny budgets.
They largely serve Africa and Asia, and their work is made possible by broad cell phone coverage, free email and cheap container shipping and international flights.
I call them GINGOS: grassroots international non-governmental organizations. I wrote about them at length in an academic article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
What I learned was that religion was pervasive in these groups, but many of the founders — themselves highly religious — rejected labeling their groups as “religious” or “faith-based.”
For instance, the Pentecostal founder of an aid organization serving Kenya told me: “Whether or not you are a Christian or a Muslim, or a Jew or whatever, I wanted it to be an open door for people to come and serve.”
She explained that she didn’t want to start a religious charity that would restrict volunteers to those of the same faith or claim a divine mandate for its work. But the group wanted to use the touchstones of religion — praying, serving others, sharing God’s love — to strengthen its ability to provide sanitation services in poor and isolated communities.
Whether they call themselves religious or not, GINGOs commonly draw on three of the resources of religion:
Religious frames: These are ways of thinking and speaking about relief and development work that imbue it with legitimacy. My analysis of 6,575 aid groups’ websites found that 25 percent use the frame of Christian ministry to discuss their work with phrases such as “God’s will” or “showing God’s love” to rationalize what they do.
Religious networks: GINGOs rely on them to recruit donors and volunteers and to gain entree into aid-receiving communities. Nearly half of the organizations I studied had some sort of partnership with a religious congregation. For example, a Minnesota-based group that built a school in Tanzania partnered with the global network of Lutheran churches. That gave the small group easier access to the expertise and resources needed to complete its projects.
Religious modes of action: An Ohio-based group allows Muslim donors to designate their contributions as zakat al-fitr, alms traditionally given on the Eid holiday, for example.
Despite all these linkages, the grass-roots groups are not what we typically think of as religious organizations. As globalization makes the world smaller, Americans are channeling their compassion through different kinds of organizations. But religion continues to provide a wealth of resources for those trying to do good.