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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?



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 11th, 2019 04:01 am (UTC)
Oh, this is so true.
My church-of-origin is the mission type, and I have so many family members still embroiled in these projects. My mother just got back from a “hurricane cleanup” trip just like this, in fact. Several of my cousins as well, I had to hear their summaries this past weekend.

You’ve summed it up so well. It’s really hard for me to talk to them about their experiences, even though I want to be supportive, they make me cringe.
Jan. 11th, 2019 08:20 am (UTC)
There is so much truth in this.
Still, in many years as a volunteer and a coordinator of volunteers I have learned one important thing: every single person is different and how much they learn and contribute in the end depends not only of their own abilities and actual availability but very much of the capacity of who coordinates them. It makes an enormous difference when you have 10 refugees and 80 volunteers, if you meet with the volunteers beforehand and try to understand what they are willing and able to do and then organise groups and activities with respect to a) the actual needs of the refugees and b)the available skills. AND..be able to reconsider the choices you made..because sometimes people discover hidden abilities only watching others do something or interacting with others.
If there is no good coordinator, it probably is better not to do these volunteer things at all.
Jan. 11th, 2019 11:30 am (UTC)
I don't think the problem that people have with it is just that it doesn't teach people to stick with a charity over the long term to make a difference.

The problem I have is that it's very expensive and the benefit to the recipients is very small. It's grossly inefficient, even profligate, maybe even masturbatory. The idea that people are spending a ton of money to show their kids how poor other people are, over just donating the money to a non-profit that could actually really use it for good, is a little nauseating. You could spend $2000 on a trip or you could spend that exact same amount and literally save a kid's life: https://www.givewell.org/giving101/Your-dollar-goes-further-overseas

Now perhaps it has more social good than spending that exact same money on a trip to Europe. So as long as we're all honest that it's a vacation, and not actually a very efficient method of helping, that's okay.

Edited at 2019-01-11 12:36 pm (UTC)
Jan. 11th, 2019 12:48 pm (UTC)
I agree that from a tactical perspective, it's kind of useless. As lepid0ptera points out, the money for the trip would go a lot further as a straight-up donation.

What I think it's accomplishing, though, is a bit of consciousness-raising. Later, some of those kids will go deeper (as you have), and contribute in more meaningful ways, informed and motivated in part by that formative experience. At least, that's what I hope.
Jan. 11th, 2019 05:00 pm (UTC)
My parents never let me or my sisters go on the mission trips, which *ALWAYS* consisted of going to Indian Reservations (in MN, NM, or OK) and painting buildings or replacing broken windows. WTH? Meanwhile our home church was in disrepair and none of us happened to be glaziers.
Jan. 13th, 2019 04:47 am (UTC)
I had a client once who had done years of work overseeing Peace Corps volunteers in other countries and her feeling was much like yours: it's for the Americans, not the recipients. It's true that the Peace Corps raises international good feeling, but most of it is on the American side. People feel attached to Fiji or Guatemala because of the two years they spent building wells, or teaching sewing skills there.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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