Christmas has many wonderful stories and memories for so many people. I often remember the strange journey of several wise men trusting their beliefs and by faith, following a special star and committing their lives to a perilous journey into the unknown.
In October 1990, four men from the Gwersyllt area of Wrexham, having seen harrowing pictures and newscasts of the state orphanages in Romania, decided to take aid out to help them. They used local contacts to obtain two suitable vehicles. They also used local media to make their intentions known and asked for donations and items to take for these forgotten children. This was the birth of ‘Operation Christmas Child’ – the logo, hand-written by a child, along with a simple star shape, coloured yellow.
The result was unbelievable and immediate. So much was donated that they had to appeal for help with further vehicles. The Welsh Development Agency assisted with the loan of a warehouse, and support came from companies far and wide supplying food, medical items, clothing etc. along with advice and logistical support. The success that grew out of this spark was based on families, friends and Wrexham churches for the following five years. The idea was born for shoe-boxes containing gifts for one child to be taken to the orphanages and each box to be made up by a child from our area. It was a simple idea that reached further than anyone could imagine. It became known as ‘Love in a Box’ and enabled children to understand how they could help others less well-off than themselves. The first convoy of now ten vehicles left Wrexham on the morning of Thursday 13th December 1990. I was a serving police officer at the time, and to my surprise, I was allocated the job of convoy navigator. I had just a few maps of Hungary, fewer of Romania and no sat nav. Just to make sure I didn’t nod off, I was also the convoy first-aider, security and radio liaison communicator for the vehicle-to-vehicle contact en-route! Each vehicle had a yellow plastic star affixed to its front.
My name is Geoff Owens from Gwersyllt Congregational Church in Wrexham. Every person on that first convoy, and the follow-up convoys at Easter and Christmas for several years after, can tell stories of what they received as they followed their star. But this story comes from a later Operation Christmas Child Convoy — this time before Easter — and of course still following the star on the front of my vehicle.
On this particular convoy, we had a state-of-the-art articulated lorry, an all-singing-all-dancing vehicle. It knew the weights on its axles and mpg and lots of other technical data — it was a beautiful wagon and a comfort to drive. We were heading as a convoy to the city of Brasov but about 90 miles before we got there, our ‘super wagon’ developed problems. The extra-efficient fuel filter was clogged, due to some poor diesel fuel recently put in the tank. We couldn’t go further, and it was not considered safe to split the convoy, so hospitals and orphanages in the nearby city of Sibiu now became our aim. We visited several orphanages with goods, food and the important shoe-boxes. We were there about three days. Our work was to drop goods and food before the joy of giving every child a shoe-box. Our tears of sadness and frustration turned to those of joy, at seeing the smiles and happiness on the faces and in the actions of delight shown by each and every child.
Fast-forward around fifteen years to the Aberystwyth conference of 2009. At the conference, my wife and I had the pleasure of meeting up with a lovely Christian couple who had befriended us many years before. They invited us to their flat for refreshments. During the time of family catch-up, a young lady entered the dining room area with my host introducing us. ‘Geoff, this is Ioana, she is from Romania. Ioana, Geoff has been to Romania a few times.’
Ioana looked quizzically at me and asked why I had been to Romania and where had I visited. I explained about the ‘Operation Christmas Child’ convoys and listed most of the cities I had visited. Ioana said she was from Sibiu. She remained with us for the rest of our visit, making ‘small talk’ but was otherwise quiet. She was a Christian working in London and at the conference with a group from her church. Several times during the conference we met and spoke, but one day she told my wife she needed to speak to me about something but didn’t know how to start the subject. My wife advised her that with prayer, God would help her. On the last meeting in the Great Hall, she came to me and said, ‘You were telling me how you went to my home city of Sibiu all those years ago with that convoy. I have to tell you I was one of those orphans who received a shoe-box from you’.
I was suddenly back in Romania with the sights, sounds and smells of so many forgotten children who had endured so much. To see this lovely young lady in front of me who had endured these things, had found Christ, and now was going on to make a better life for herself, brought more than one tear to my eye. Ioana, in later conversations, told me how that shoe-box meant so much to her because at that moment, for the first time, she knew there were people in the world who loved her. This, later on in life, could enable her to understand more of the love of God and went a long way to helping her to understand the Christian gospel.
My wife and I took on a lot of parental responsibilities for her, and she introduces us as ‘mum and dad’ because now we are. She now has a loving Christian husband and is mother to two boys and a girl to whom we are ‘Nain and Taid’. We have an extra son, daughter and three more grandchildren! How much sweeter can life be, than to share love with others.
The ‘God-incidents’ that were involved in this story were far more than mentioned here. So many Christian people were involved in bringing us together, across countries and over many years, because I was prepared to make a small sacrifice, suffer a little discomfort, openly show humanity and the love of God, and above all follow the star into the unknown. I am just an ordinary guy trusting in the Lord. Now it’s your turn to follow the Christmas star. Trust in the Lord.