Instead of saying "cheese," a few people posing for photos with Luis Gonzalez on Saturday said "Christmas in July."
Gonzalez, 30, of Louisville, received a shoebox gift from Operation Christmas Child when he was 6 years old in his native Panama. He visited Mayfield and some other western Kentucky communities this weekend as a spokesman for the program, kicking it off for the year.
Samaritan's Purse has organized Operation Christmas Child since 1993. It is an international Christian relief agency founded by Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham.
The group has delivered more than 168 million shoebox gifts to children in more than 160 countries, according to a fact sheet provided by Operation Christmas Child. Volunteers select toys, school supplies and hygiene items to fill the boxes, and a Christian pamphlet in the child's own language is added later by Samaritan's Purse.
Kathy Butler, Operation Christmas Child area coordinator for 11 counties in western Kentucky plus Massac County in southern Illinois, said the area provided 17,000 shoebox gifts last year to distribute to children, many of whom have never previously received a present.
"I rejoice that God uses this simple shoebox and the gifts we give that we put inside to begin a work in a child's life," Butler told a crowd of about 30 people gathered Saturday morning in the fellowship hall at Mayfield First United Methodist Church.
She later added that although it is still months until Christmas, July is a great time for a kick-off because as parents are buying school supplies for their own children, they can often pick up extras to put in a shoebox. Hygiene items are often on sale this time of year as well as parents gather items to send with their older children to college.
It's only the third time in the past 10 years that a shoebox gift recipient has been available to speak to area churches, Butler said.
"For me to tell a story I've heard about is one thing, but when you hear it from the mouth of a child who received a box is a bigger blessing," Butler said. "It's real."
Gonzalez not only told about his box. He also brought it. Twenty-four years after receiving it, he still has both it and the small stuffed lamb inside that plays the song "Jesus Loves Me," even though the school supplies once in it are long gone.
"Here we are speaking about the impact a shoebox gift had in my life," Gonzalez said before addressing the crowd. "When I was 6 years old, a seed was planted in me. That seed was the word of God. It transformed my life in a way I never imagined."
Gonzalez spoke about growing up as one of three children of a single mother, living in a house with a dirt floor. The family shared one bed and one towel. They had no toothbrushes or toothpaste, so they scrubbed salt on their teeth using a finger to clean them.
His mother would work in exchange for food.
"She would bring to us a piece of bread, a piece of bread that was supposed to last in our stomach for three days," Gonzalez said.
Missionaries would come to the community from time to time.
"My mom didn't believe in God, and she didn't want to know anything about God," Gonzalez said. "People would come to the door to preach, and she would slam the door."
When Gonzalez was 6, he saw other children going to school, and he wanted to go. His mother said she didn't have the money for pencils and paper, but Gonzalez could pray for them if he wished.
The day after praying, the mother and son were invited to a church and went. The church handed out shoebox gifts that day, and inside were the pencils and notebooks that allowed Gonzalez to go to school.
"My mom was next to me, and she said, 'Now I know God is real, and He answers our prayers,'" Gonzalez said.
What meant the most to Gonzalez was a letter in the box in which the gift-giver told him Jesus loved him and so did the gift-giver.
"The letter that I received made the difference in my heart," Gonzalez said.
Although Gonzalez was not yet ready to become a Christian, his mother was, and she continued to pray for him, he said. Gonzalez eventually received Christ at 14 in the same church where he received the shoebox eight years before. By 17, he was a youth pastor at the same church.
Gonzalez began exchanging emails with the woman who is now his wife after she visited Panama as part of a study abroad program through the University of Louisville. He was working for Delta Airlines in Panama at the time. They have now been married seven years, and he attends graduate school and works as a bank teller in Louisville.
Gonzalez encouraged people to fill a shoebox with gifts for a child, to write an encouraging note to enclose inside and to drop the box off during national collection week Nov. 18-25. In Mayfield, the collection point is First United Methodist.
Showing his box to those assembled, he said, "It reminds me of that time I needed help, and God answered my prayers."
For more information about Operation Christmas Child, including how to pack a box and what to include and not to include, please visit https://www.samaritanspurse.org/what-we-do/operation-christmas-child/