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January 10th, 2019

voluntourism

Marc and I used to joke that the worst church service to ever accidentally attend was NOT the "we're asking you for money" or "we're talking about hell" like you'd think... it was the service where the high school youth group just got back from their summer mission trip and are passing the mic around up front to share their experiences with the congregation. exhausting, trite, repetitive, and full of cliches about how they went to give back to the world but "those people really gave back to ME!" because it was so eye opening and educational.

as more and more people are recognizing it, there's a great new word for meaningless travel: voluntourism. it's what happens when an affluent person with no special skills or experience goes on a trip and combines tourism with pre-packaged volunteer hours spent doing something that involves no thinking or organization on their part... painting a building, cleaning toys at a daycare, digging a trench. but they learn so much!

I can't throw too many rocks. I went on a high school mission trip. I was more concerned with what guy I'd get to sit next to on the van ride up than the long-term affects of what we'd accomplish that week. I did remember looking across Chicago and realizing we hadn't made any kind of dent in the problems facing the population. What drove so many people to the projects? Why didn't they finish their lunches at the soup kitchen? Why was one guy in our group bullied so harshly by the others, when we were on a mission trip trying to tell other people to step up and achieve great things? Lots of questions. But our week was up, and we drove back home.

Now that I'm thinking back on that trip and how ineffective it was, I see "mission trip" mentality around me all the time, people don't even really have to go on trips. It happens in every non-profit... you get someone who joins the group, volunteers for a role, then suddenly steps back because it's not going perfectly with a long resignation email about how they TRIED to change us but can't so it's not worth filling out their term but "thank you all for this experience, I learned so much!"

or the newbie who comes to one meeting and spouts out a million ideas for other people to do, (they say "we", they mean "everyone but me") and they're not going to handle the hard work of thinking/organizing/bugging people but we should really pre-package all of this for them, it's so SIMPLE, don't you see. They fly in like birds, eat a few bread crumbs, fly off, and arrive home thinking they really helped out.

your first week on any job, you are learning. the people training you are doing so with the hope that you'll contribute in the long term, train the next person, take over some of the mental work and thinking that they're doing now. if you're a student, paying a teacher, that's one thing... but you'd never leave school after a day of hearing lectures telling everyone you feel really good about your contributions. we do no pretending there.

Maybe that's how every high school mission trip should REALLY end, with a deep dive into the underlying causes and a long discussion about what it takes to run an organization that truly makes a difference. administrative costs, grant writing, licensed social workers. or a dive into the issues, what drives the cycle of poverty. or hear about what the last mission group did, and evaluate the long-term implications. if you're here to learn, well let's really learn. call it a class.

the kids would leave understanding that it takes more than a week to be a part of something, and you can't just descend down into it, and real change requires listening and slowing down and above all else - perseverance. we don't try to teach them to be readers, or mathematicians, or athletes in a week. they are disciplines that cannot be mindless or simple. why do we tell kids that improving the world is any different?

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