LA LAGUNA, Mexico — Edward Graham, a grandson of the late evangelist Billy Graham, joined Samaritans Purse’s Operation Christmas Child mission trip to a remote village in Mexico so he could witness what he described as true evangelism at work in the world today.
Graham serves as the assistant to the vice president of Operation Christmas Child and wanted to see for himself the impact the shoebox gift project has had on recipients by visiting a secluded village that dedicated its first church last month as a result of the evangelistic tool.
The entire village of unreached people was first exposed to the Gospel message after Tequila resident, pastor Jose Benitez, risked his life by traveling six hours to go up mountain to evangelize and bring Operation Christmas Child boxes to the children living in the remote village.
"We had this opportunity to come down here and meet pastor Jose. And I was like, 'I've got to meet this guy,' Graham told The Christian Post about the pastor who took it upon himself to make the dangerous trek up and down the mountain despite his inability to walk do to childhood polio. "A guy that's bold and is willing to make this journey, who's also handicapped himself, and in the eyes of the world maybe has a reason or excuse, 'that it's OK I can't do that.' He hasn't let them hold him back and I wanted to meet this guy.”
"I'm fairly new to the ministry, just been working at Samaritan's Purse for a little over eight months," added Graham, who served in the U.S. Army for 16 years. "And as I'm going around and seeing the different aspects, I want to be encouraged and see champions of Christ. I heard this guy's story and I wanted to come down here and to meet him, and selfishly be a little bit encouraged and inspired by him."
Edward Graham is no stranger to evangelism as his late grandfather, Billy Graham, and father, Franklin Graham, among other members of his family, have traveled the world to share the Gospel. After meeting Benitez, Graham expressed his admiration and said he was inspired by the pastor's passion to share the hope of God despite his own physical limitations.
"I think the world might look at pastor Jose and they see someone that's riding around on the scooter that doesn't have use of his legs. But as you hear his heart and the boldness that he has, the certainty of what he's doing, it's not his actions. You can tell it's not his feet moving, but it's Jesus taking him and he's been obedient to the Gospel,” Graham said.
The village of La Laguna is home to an indigenous people called Mexicaneros, or the Nahuatl people, and until they heard the name of Jesus just a few years ago, it was an extremely violent place to live.
“This is not an easy place to get to and he has stayed committed in coming here,” Graham said of Benitez. “They did an Operation Christmas Child distribution and now we're doing a church dedication. And it's the commitment of him continuing to come back even after he saw no fruit from his labor. God called him here and he answered the call,” Graham stressed.
Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, has provided an open door for people to help pastors like Benitez around the world by filling shoeboxes with gifts of toys, school supplies, hygiene items, and booklets with the Gospel message that are sent to over 160 nations, including 50 hard to reach areas.
Graham wants people everywhere to know that packing a shoebox with toys for Christmas isn't just a kind gesture.
"Growing up in the ministry and seeing Operation Christmas Child from the start and to where it is now you hear people often [say], 'Oh, maybe you shouldn't get involved because they're just toys and they're just gifts.' We don't refer to them as toys and gifts, they're Gospel opportunities and a lot of people don't understand the discipleship training that goes on,” Graham explained.
"If you want to change the trajectory of a community and bring hope to where there maybe is no hope to an unreachable group that never heard the Gospel ... Jose's been working here for years and did an Operation Christmas Child distribution, and now we're doing a church plant right here,” he emphasized. “What an incredible story of how God has used something little and simple to reach the children, to share the name of Jesus Christ, and then to teach them about discipleship. Then they go home, talk to their parents about it, and the community is led to Christ. It's how you change the trajectory.”
Operation Christmas Child also offers a 12 lesson discipleship program called The Greatest Journey, which takes children further into discovering what it is to follow Jesus and how to share it with their family. Benitez’s discipleship using The Greatest Journey is what helped lead to La Laguna’s first church dedication in the region of unreached people on Oct. 22. CP attended the Manartha Christian Church's dedication ceremony which drew the interest of surrounding villages in the mountains and several members of the church were baptized.
“We were down in some of the lower villages around the city and you see how the prison ministry is being used, and the guys are being led to Christ. They come out and they're working with children using Operation Christmas Child to share the name of Christ in these communities,” Graham added. "These are the examples of being restored, and that's inspiring as well.”
As the grandson of one of the greatest revivalists of our time, Graham also shared his perspective on evangelism.
"A lot of people think about evangelism and they think of my grandfather in the mass stadiums,” he said. “Evangelism happens in the ditches and the dirt, on the rough roads along the world. This is where you're seeing the term 'the rubber meets the road.' You're seeing bold champions of Christ use a small tool to champion the name of Jesus Christ and then go out and make many disciples of men.”
"This whole community never heard the name of Jesus and now you have this community behind us, and we're about to do a church dedication and see all these children running around. It is incredible,” he said.
Graham emphasized that people are what makes up a church, and in all of his years of traveling across the world the worship of God shares the same heart.
"The churches in America, I think we just look at structures and buildings and we think that's the church,” Graham said. “It is the body of Christ, and no matter where I've gone around the world, the body of Christ is the same; the worship is the same. We might not understand the language, the words, the tunes might be different, but the praising the Lord Jesus Christ and hearing His name preached through the Gospel is the same no matter where I go, no matter the church, no matter the community, and I love that about the body of Christ.”
He concluded: "I just hope that people, if they would like to be involved in evangelism of the church of the community, this is the easiest way to really get involved. You might not be able to make this trek, the six-hour journey from the city in Mexico that we left to get [up] here, but you can be a part of it and you can make a difference by either volunteering or even packing a shoebox.”
Bill Pfister, senior regional director in the Americas and the Caribbean for Operation Christmas Child, who also traveled to La Laguna, thanked God for what he’s seen in the village since his last visit.
“If you've ever packed an Operation Christmas Child shoebox the power is incredible to see what God is doing with that simple gift," Pfister said. "God is using it to bring people to faith in Christ; to make disciples, to see new churches planted, to see unreached people groups being reached. What I've seen today is the fulfillment of an incredible promise. God is faithful. So thanks so much for what you're doing," he said of everyone who participates in the mission project.
Operation Christmas Child has been in operation for 26 years, and thanks to their efforts to witness to hard to reach places by using the shoebox gifts, the village of La Laguna in remote Mexico has come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
The organization estimates that there are still 7,000 unreached people groups in the world today, many of whom have never heard the name Jesus Christ, and they want to continue to duplicate what was done in the mountains of Mexico. In 2018, a reported 2 million decisions were made for Christ as a result of Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts.
For more information about how you can help other pastors like Benitez around the world by packing shoebox gifts, visit Operation Christmas Child’s website.
The following is a message from Vice President Jim Harrelson to all Operation Christmas Child partners.