Guest post: Nicole Wilson-Murphy

I believe in challenging. Challenging what the world sees as “normal” social systems and services. Through my experience I have become increasingly confrontational as I have witnessed families, communities, and nations destroyed by the “good” we assume we are doing. Thus, I have begun question the manner in which we serve developing nations.  My hope is that as we continue to serve abroad, we also begin to raise our standards for effective serving.

Cultural Insensitivity; its ignorant and unfair, but I’m guilty of it.  I was conditioned to believe to that whatever warms my heart is good but I now see things much differently. I now know my actions have to be based on so much more than our feelings.  I want to ask you how you would feel if you were sitting in the hospital with your sick child and a person from another part of the world who spoke a language you may not understand picked up your child, and started praying. What if you, as that parent, were brought up with the notion that the person of the other race was “holier” than you? What if a person walked into your home and started snapping photos of your family life as if it were a museum display? What if some clean western person came into your home and cried at the living conditions? What if they then talked about the tattered clothing your children were wearing? Would you want to cry at their lack of understanding? Might you feel offended, shocked, ill-treated? Might these actions encourage and only confirm the feelings of worthlessness? I can guarantee most of the displays of “service” we do while we serve developing nations on short term trips are offensive and would not be tolerated in our communities or homes. So why then do we commit these offenses? It’s because more often than not we use these trips to make ourselves feel holier.

Why do we assume we can do things we wouldn’t dare do in the western world, just because we are serving abroad? Serving a developing nation does NOT mean we get to throw out the rulebook for preserving people’s right to privacy.  Serving the less prosperous does not mean we get to make judgments on cultural parenting choices or their standards of living.  Sadly we do abuse people right to privacy and by doing so this is how we exploit the very people we go to serve.

Exploitation happens when we begin to think missions are about us. When we send out our youth so that they can be “exposed” to true suffering in hopes that it might make them better people.  This is not serving the people or the community. This is not alleviating their needs, but it is purely self-fulfillment. When we believe suffering can be solved by spending little time investing but much time trying to rearrange communities to our western standards, then desiring them to be grateful for what we do. We are creating a system of selfish service, which is really not service at all.  This is poverty exploitation and something I believe Jesus would be infuriated with in His time. Missions are about the people we serve and we cannot effectively serve a culture we do not understand, because we do not take the time to do so. Simply stated it is wrong and dangerous when we act in this manner.

There are a couple types of standardized types of exploitation that I have become familiar with. These are orphanage tourism[i] and poverty tourism.[ii] These particular types of exploitations have become common practices during service trips. Sadly, they not only project a negative feeling to the communities visited but they also turn poverty and vulnerable children into commodities. We subject the very people we are there to love and protect to evils we do not stand for. By doing so we put children and communities at risk for abuse and trafficking.  A recent example of the abuse that occurs is of a British airline pilot who used orphanage tourism to sexually assault loads of girls.[iii] I ask myself how did he get away with this? Where were the people who should have been protecting these young girls?

Even short trips to orphanages where Child’s Rights[iv] are observed and thus protected from such abuse can consequently have a negative impact on the children in the home. A study on Reactive Attachment Disorder states “Most children with Reactive Attachment Disorder have had severe problems or disruptions in their early relationships.  Many have been physically or emotionally abused or neglected.  Some have experienced inadequate care in an institutional setting or other out-of-home placement such as a hospital, residential program, foster care or orphanage.  Others have had multiple or traumatic losses or changes in their primary caregiver.”[v] We send teams to orphanages with intentions to do good. During their time in the home they will hold, feed, and change babies. They will play for countless hours. They may even clean and help organize. They will bring toys, diapers, formula, etc. All of these things are good and helpful. Unfortunately the effect of this temporary trip will cause the children in the home to further suffer the loss of the ability to form healthy attachments in relationships for the rest of their lives. In this case the money we spend on these trips would be better spent supporting local organizations fostering long-term change in these homes and communities.

These are sadly just a few realities of these practices. The vulnerable become exposed to violations such as these. With no protection from them as strangers are allowed to roam free with no regulations. This should enrage anyone who goes to serve abroad with good intentions. However, until we refuse to support these practices, it will continue. Because as long as there is money to be made from these trips, there will continue to be people willing to commit these evils for a profit.

Many may question if I claim it is so harmful why do so many orphanages and communities participate in short term trips. Though some have real needs to be met by these teams, more commonly it is because westerners come with material possessions and money.  We go to these places and offer/throw money around as if it actually did grow on trees. In desperation or greed these communities and people say or do little in fear that we might not come to help if they actually communicated their beliefs on how they would desire to be served. For the ones who are brave enough to speak to us as equal and put us in our place, we often respond with wild accusations. We question how their people do not care well enough for their children. We question their entire culture. We develop this condemning SAVIOR complex. We try to take the upper hand when instead we should be humbled by their honesty. That is the key to serving, to be humbled by what they have to say.

So then I ask myself, how do I serve humbly? How do I nurture relationships with communities in such a way that they can be honest about the best way to meet their long-term needs?

During service trips abroad it is vital to maintain a positive and negative viewpoint. Speaking from personal failure, we often go into developing nations out of pure intentions to help and so we only see the positive of our actions. By doing so, we often fail to look at the negative consequences, which there always are. It is crucial that we understand and believe we can inherently harm a community by doing “good”. In the book “When Helping Hurts” Steve Corbett points this out perfectly: “The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates- albeit unintentionally- that we are superior and they are inferior. In the process we hurt the poor and ourselves. And here is the clincher: this dynamic is likely to be particularly strong whenever the middle-to-upper-class, North American Christians try to help the poor, given these Christians’ tendency toward a Western, materialistic perspective of the nature of poverty. “

Let us learn from this.  We are called to do service not out of ignorance, but to serve with diligence and respect. To assume we always know what’s best for the communities we enter is ignorant at best and arrogant at worst. To serve in ignorance or arrogance in the name of Jesus is not befitting to His cause. It would be wise of us to remember that at times Jesus did walk away from crowds. He didn’t walk away because He didn’t care or because His mission had changed. No, He walked away because He was diligent in His mission, serving when He knew it was His time. Jesus was wise, he knew that He had to garter respect by giving it; an example we often forget in our service.  So we ought to serve as He served. We should begin to make the changes necessary to create productive short-term trips. We have to become educated about unethical practices and learn how we can take a stand against them. When we rally to stand against them, we will no longer unintentionally take part in selfish service.  If we stand in the light that knowledge offers, then we will no longer be a part of the darkness that is ignorance.

Mission trips will serve people best when our intentions are to build up what the local communities have established and not when we go to set up something our way that we expect the locals to replicate after we leave. We must believe in them enough to let them grow on their own.

Short-term trips are not hopeless. There most definitely are beautiful and positive changes that can be the outcome of these trips. However, out actions and the services we provide need to be refined, just as iron must be shaped by blistering heat to become a useful tool, we to must let the challenging and questioning of how serve be used to sharpen our resolve and our opinion of how to help without hurting.