When Helping Makes It Worse

The other day I heard this NPR story about the new trend in "voluntourism," in which folks combine vacation with mission by traveling to other countries and volunteering in orphanages in Asia and Africa. The story centered around one particular orphanage in South Africa. "We're here to try and give them good memories for the rest of their lives," according to one volunteer. The foreigners play with the kids, help with homework, maybe even provide medical support, if they have that kind of training. But the steady stream of strangers coming and going can be harmful for kids who have trouble building attachments. The constant abandonment can be detrimental to their ability to form deep relationships. An emotional callus forms.

These voluntourists provide unmistakable benefits to the orphanage, including much-needed support and yes, additional funds. The murkier question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

(As an aside, I also have to say that while I genuinely think that folks' hearts are in the right place---and travel and mission work can be so helpful to provide us with a broader perspective of the world---there are at-risk kids in every neighborhood in America that need to be played with and read to.)

I wonder where congregations fit into this. I can't count the number of churches I know who do mission work that includes working with orphans and children's homes. The best partnerships are ongoing and deeply relational. The church gets to know the staff and kids and are there to learn nad serve. Some of these partnerships have gone on for decades. Maybe it's not the exact same group of people coming from the church every year, but some folks do come year after year, so there is a consistency that might mitigate the abandonment dynamic.

Certainly the church is not immune from the dangers highlighted in the article. The potential is there for a drive-by dynamic that makes the volunteer feel good and useful but that doesn't honor the dignity of the other. But I think that congregations who have formed good and healthy partnerships could be a resource in this discussion.