The minister in Matthews and the family in Matthews didn't know each other but forged a connection through an act of kindness.
Jeff Gardner, minister of south Charlotte's Threshold Church, which meets at the Siskey Y in Matthews, didn't expect the invitation from Samaritan's Purse, the Charlotte-based mission organization.
"You generally have to work at Samaritan's Purse for 10 years before you get the chance to go on a trip and see what you've been supporting," said Gardner. "I got a call from Joey White, one of our elders. He asked me if I wanted to get away for a few days and told me Samaritan's Purse was looking for a pastor to lead devotions for the trip participants going to Haiti. Would I like to do it? Of course I went."
The trip to Haiti, site of the devastating earthquake just a year earlier, was part of Operation Christmas Child, a shoebox ministry in which people back a shoebox with new items for a child.
Evangelical information, in the language of the children, is also given out during the shoebox distributions in one of the more than 100countries in the 2010-11 distribution. Items packed in the shoeboxes include small gifts such as games or school supplies, hygiene items such as soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, combs and brushes, and socks or other small clothing items.
Packing Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes is a tradition in the Benjamin family, said Kathleen Benjamin. Her family has packed shoeboxes for the ministry for 15 years, adding to the number collected by Matthews United Methodist. Over the years, the family increased its commitment to the program by assembling 12 shoeboxes each year.
"We always include a letter with our return address and a photo of our family," she said, adding that her family has received about 12 letters back over the years, and for a time, had a multiyear correspondence with one family.
Benjamin was surprised when a man knocked on her front door in Matthews. Gardner introduced himself, and said he was there to tell about her shoebox that was given to a child in Haiti. He brought photos of the child who had just received her shoebox.
"We never thought that a person distributing the shoeboxes would come across a shoebox from us and take a picture of the child receiving it," said Benjamin. "What are the chances of that - maybe one is several million?"
Samaritan's Purse delivered about 250,000 boxes to children in Haiti, where it has also been helping victims of the earthquake, said Gardner. Visiting Haiti was one of his most memorable trips, he said, no small distinction for a minister who has been to 19 countries on mission trips.
"The local pastors are my heroes," said Gardner. "I thought it would be a hopeless, God-forsaken place, but attending the open-air churches in Haiti was so inspiring because the churches were packed and welcoming - and the ministers preached with power.
"Handing the shoeboxes out to the children was the most fun," said Gardner. "The joy we saw - when we could bring a tangible expression of God's love without even speaking - was immense. We let that child know that he is loved."
Gardner didn't see the child who received the shoebox from the Benjamins, but another person distributing shoeboxes saw the address label from Matthews and took a photo for Gardner because he knew Gardner's church was located in Matthews. Gardner decided to look up the family who donated the shoebox.
Gardner and Benjamin met and a connection forged a continent away came home to south Charlotte.
"That photo and story helped us see God's mission at work," said Benjamin, who is now working on purchasing items for 24 shoeboxes for this year. "It was really a gift to us."