For most of my young and adult life, I’ve lived under the assumption that volunteering is next to godliness. That helping hands are always just that–helpful. That packing up and sleeping on a cot in the Domincan Republic for a week is true sacrifice. That my presence alone in a third world country like Haiti or Guatemala or Mexico is enough to warrant a pat on the back, a tax deductible check for a hundred dollars, and a 30 person prayer chain.
Like most Christian denominations, the Mennonites have strong roots in missions, service, and volunteer experiences abroad. Young families are encouraged to participate in week long service trips, youth groups encouraged to spend entire summers in orphanages, high school and college graduates nudged towards year programs like YWAM and SALT. We erect banners with the famous verse from Isaiah: I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.
The problem with these trips is that contrary to their mission statements, most service projects do not empower those being served or improve any quality of life. Not only do we push our agenda and flash our cell phones in their faces, most trips focus most of their energy on those who are going instead of those “in need.” We send youth for the experience, to show them not everyone has iPhones. We send adults for the same reason. Even when multiple studies show that short-term trips do not positively affect the lives of participants, we still send teams because we need it.
This is not easy to swallow.
As a serial volunteer from an early age, it breaks my heart to think that all the time I spent playing with children and holding babies was just for me. I feel a sharp defensiveness rise in my chest thinking about my time spent across the slopes of Peru or in the rubble of Haiti. Waves of affection and nostalgia wash over me when I see photos of twenty kids in tie dyed shirts and matching hats playing card games on a rickety bus because I’ve lived it. I’ve held sick babies and cried over orphaned toddlers. I’ve sang the songs and played the group games and laughed until my sides hurt. I’ve held a mother’s hand while she watched her daughter die.
Was my service in vain? Was I actually hurting the people I met?
Despite the American hero complex and what often turns into a “faith based vacation,” I believe many of us are really, truly, trying to help.
It is also easy to become jaded. Jaded when you hear about “culture shock” after 9 days in the Caribbean. Jaded when you are subjected to slideshows of 500 pictures of zip-lining and sunsets. Jaded when you have to hear a 16 year old talk about how she “left her heart in Honduras” and “can’t wait to go back” when we all know little Ninoska will be forgotten within weeks after school starts again. Jaded when you’ve lived the hard truth that all you really learned in your time abroad was: Thank God I don’t live there.
In Darren Carlson’s article, Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-Term Mission Trips, he says:
“I have seen with my own eyes or know of houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; fake orphanages in Uganda erected to get Westerners to give money; internet centers in India whose primary purpose is to ask Westerners for money; children in African countries purposefully mutilated by their parents so they would solicit sympathy while they beg; a New England-style church built by a Western team in Cameroon that is never used except when the team comes to visit; and slums filled with big-screen TVs and cell phone towers.”
Darren goes on to outline many of the problems with church volunteering, specifically the effect on the receivers of our “goodwill.” He asks you to imagine the situation in reverse; a team from France calls your church and says they want to visit. They want to put on Vacation Bible School (which you have done for years), but the material is in French. Sorry! They have heard about how the U.S. church has struggled with faith and want to help fix it. You’re welcome. They want to send 20 to 30 people, half of them youth. Only two of them speak English, mostly words relating to food items and kitchen utensils. They will need a place to stay for free, with cheap food and warm showers if possible. During the trip half of the group’s energy will be spent on resolving tension between team members. Two people will get violently sick. Also they’d like you to arrange some sightseeing for them on their free day. Everyone will get free ipods!
Do you want them to come?
It’s not all the Christian’s fault. Volunteering abroad to build schools or dig wells is not limited to “hope spreaders” and “Christ seekers.” Every year, hundreds of thousands of young people travel abroad to volunteer as part of school requirements, to build their résumés, or to soul search as part of what is now known as “gap year trips.” Their quests fueled by the belief that because we are from the land of good and plenty, we have the right or obligation to bestow our benevolence on people. Never mind if we don’t speak the language, don’t have the skills or experience to qualify for the jobs we’re doing, or don’t know anything about what life is like “over there.” (BBC: Is Gap Volunteering A Bad Thing?)
Of course no one wants to think their generosity might hurt someone. And isn’t there some merit in a young, American girl seeing extreme poverty and realizing the world is bigger than the Gap? Dozens of my friends, including myself, have experienced great personal change after weeks or months “serving” in third world countries. Many of us going on to pursue careers or lifetime commitments to genuinely helping others.
The problem is complex, the struggle between wanting to help but wanting to help on our terms is complicated. We want to make positive change but we also kind of want to buy colorful bags and site-see. We want to dig ditches but also–do you have WiFi? I want to upload this sacrifice to Instagram.
It is the culture we live in.
It’s easy to say “doing something is better than doing nothing,” but is it? I believe there is an answer somewhere, but it will only be uncovered asking the tough questions. Questions that make our hearts hurt and our egos deflated. Questions that uncover the difference between service and site-seeing, sacrifice and vacation. Questions about time and commitment. Questions about our motives and why are we really here? Questions about how we as disciples, as humans, can help without hurting.
We live in a universe of sickness, greed, inflated egos, hatred, and incredible suffering. On paper, I am a self professed skeptic, but the truth is–I believe we are capable of great kindness.
How can we show this kindness? How can we help without hurting?
Respectful dialogue encouraged below.