This July, a passel of Texans are headed to Zambia on a medical mission trip, something I wrote about here. Though invited, I’d pretty well decided not to go.
But the truth is, I want to go.
I believe many of us, Christian and non, want our lives to matter more than they currently do. We want to help other people in meaningful and systemic ways, we just aren’t sure how. So, I’m experimenting with my life and reporting back to you.
And since I am a girl who worries about cultural imperialism, I’m reading When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. This month’s Conde Nast Traveler ran an article entitled Does Voluntourism Do More Harm Than Good? Its author asks:
Wouldn’t it be better, I wonder, if we had just sent money so Grace could hire an all-Haitian crew to build these houses? Aren’t we perpetuating the “white man coming to save us” dependency that has characterized Haiti’s relationship with America ever since the United States occupied the country in 1915?
In the story, aid workers deride the “Matching T-Shirt Brigades”- typically church volunteers who arrive with inadequate skills and little cultural knowledge, to shovel dirt and hand out bible tracts. Not surprisingly, their long-term impact is negligible or damaging. Even Christians like Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, who worked for years in Costa Rica, wrote a six-part blog about the perils of short-term missions.
But remember Christians are literally required by their faith to serve and that’s why they keep showing up in matching t-shirts. So give them some credit for being faithful. Plus, the article says, $15 billion has poured into Haiti and it’s still a mess. So what do you do? I want to obey Jesus’ command to defend the orphan, but I don’t want to just hammer a few 2×4’s, and blithely photograph kids so I can gush about them on Facebook. Nor do I want to use Africa as a key to unlock my own spiritual prisons.
After all, what is the trip about? The mission or the missionary?
“It’s both,” said Holly Garland of SCRUBS Medical Missions. She explains with a story about a deeply burnt out local dentist who went on a trip with them. He came back rejuvenated and excited about serving his people in his own practice. Other missionaries, she said, have never taken another trip because they got so busy serving their own communities. The mission shifted their whole paradigm.
“And we are not the great white hope,” Holly said, adding that humility and relationship-building are at the core of their work. That’s why SCRUBS has committed to work in the same village, with the same pastor. SCRUBS was invited there and it defers to his leadership on development projects.
And they pray for people, sharing what they know about Jesus.
Holly said, one elderly woman had been told God hears only the priest, not her, and his prayers are expensive. The woman cried when Holly told her it wasn’t true. When the village leader asked for a Bible, they gave him one in his language. He had heard of The Proverbs and wanted to try them out in his next conflict.
That doesn’t sound like cultural imperialism to me. It sounds like friendship.
Mother Teresa famously said, people in the west are dying of spiritual disease like people in the east are dying of physical ones. While the people in Chongwe are materially poor, Holly said, they have a strong sense of joy and contentment.
What is the number one struggle in my materially abundant American life? Ironically, it’s contentment. So maybe if I accept, I am just as broken as the villagers of Chongwe, only in different ways, that might keep me from acting like the great white hope. Maybe by humbly offering myself, broken parts and all, God can use the whole thing to help someone else. And that’s what I want.
So yes, it absolutely is about me, just not in the way I thought. I don’t have to have it all figured out, so I can fly to Zambia and get them figured out. Yuck. At best, this trip, if I go, is less a gift from me to them, as an exchange of gifts between us.