Should I Be Here?

August 26, 2012 § 4 Comments

Copyright World Vision, 2012. Photographed by Matthew Paul Turner.

When you’re an editor or a journalist, it’s easy to stand on the outside. It’s your job, in fact. You have to be objective. You have to be critical. You have to ask the hard questions. Earnestness is the enemy.

So here I am, in Sri Lanka as a guest of World Vision, a seasoned editor on a trip with writers. A journalist looking for the story while others await experiences. Standing on the outside, detached and cynical—my familiar posture has followed me across the world.

Which is why I can’t stop asking these questions—questions that persist as the result of six years of thinking hard about social justice, short term missions trips and charity as an editor for various publications dealing with these issues. They are questions that accompanied me here and dog my presence on the trip. Questions that all crystallize into one gut-punch “Should I be here?”

Am I just engaging in Christian tourism?
“Christian tourism” has become a vogue criticism of short term missions trips in the past several years. And not without reason. Visiting a developing country—and the farther away the better, Mexico doesn’t cut it anymore—has become a bucket list item for many Christians. And much, much, much has been written about the good and the ugly of short term missions. From stories of churches repainting buildings after the American youth team left—just so they could be ready to paint again when another team comes; to accounts of trips that cost $50,000 to build a school that would have cost local workers one quarter the amount and employed them to boot. The benefits are there too, of course. But often they are more for the visitor than the receiver, unless western churches are intentional about longterm partnerships and educated in sustainable development.

This is my fourth time in the developing world—every time I have gone as a journalist and so I have let myself off the hook for this question. I’m not a Christian tourist. I’m here to tell stories that will ultimately benefit. Right…?

Could this money have been better spent elsewhere?
This trip will gain sponsorships for children and that is a very good thing. I can directly see the ROI for this trip—which has been true for most of the trips I’ve been on. I know why I went and I know why the money was spent. But it’s still hard not to ask the question when I see the money exchange rates and I know how far a dollar goes here. Is my presence worth the cost—worth what could not be done because I am here? A weighty question indeed, with implications of responsibility that make me shudder

What do they think of me?
Of course this is a question people ask all the time no matter where they are. Or, at least, self-conscious people like me do. But it’s amplified overseas. Every spoken word of English, every home visit with our plethora of backpacks and camera equipment, every engagement with a local is a moment to wonder what they are thinking of our presence here. Are they glad we’re here or resentful of our intrusion? Do our material things cause envy and resentment? Do they want us here or do they just wish we would please go away and leave them alone?

I’ll admit I pretty much always assume I’m an intrusion, but over here that feeling is exacerbated. Everywhere I’ve been, there has always been such a sense of hospitality and welcome. Yet despite constant reassurances, I can’t help but look for the nonverbal cues revealing we aren’t wanted, that our presence brings more tension than joy.

Am I helping or hurting?
None of us want to be contributors to the problem and not the solution. When so many short term missions trips, social justice efforts and charitable works produce questionable results or even longterm damage, you have to ask yourself if you’re helping or if you’re hurting. I believe in World Vision’s programs—from child sponsorship to micro loans to malaria prevention efforts, I know what World Vision does and I know it’s effective. So I believe they have the long-term in mind. I believe they are pursuing sustainable development and are aware of and working to avoid the cyclical risks of enablement charity. But even knowing that, I worry. I worry about my own presence here and whether the small gifts I brought for the kids are OK or if they are feeding negative patterns. We are bringing business to this hotel and employing locals … but we are also consuming more food and draining resources. And then we’ll just leave. What happens to the employees after we leave? What about the food we don’t eat? Does it bother them to see so much go to waste? Do our cameras and our computers and our clothes reveal a world they can’t have and so plant seeds of envy and discontent?

Or, is our presence a moment of hope? Do we represent God’s love and a caring global church? I want to believe that. I really do. But there’s that cynic again…

Is my relationship with God “right” enough for this?
I love God. I love His Church. I believe in the Bible and the creeds and the power of the Holy Spirit in us. I do. But my faith is very much in what Lauren Winner might call “the middle.” It’s real and present, but it’s a choice. I choose to read my Bible. I choose to pray. I choose to go to church. I am not someone you would say is “alive” with some kind of “fiery” faith. So am I the best representation of Christ here at this moment? Could someone else have served better here in my place?

What happens after I leave?
What happens to those I met and interacted with here in Sri Lanka after I leave? What happens to me after I leave? What happens, after I leave, to those who have read my various dispatches from the trip? Are there changes for the better in all those places? Or is it life as usual? I know I have always been changed by trips like these. I know that change is still in me … but I also know how quickly life seeps back in. I know I must live in the culture I exist and it is a much different culture than that of Sri Lanka. But there are potential negative effects (like those listed above) and they frighten me.

Here, at the beginning of this trip, these questions are ever-present for me. I cannot take off my journalist hat, nor put aside my jaded-editor bent. Anyway, these questions are valid; they are not easily dismissed nor unimportant to consider.

Should I be here? I don’t know, but I am. And there is a way for me to do God’s will while I am here. There is a way to navigate these questions and I will pray the Holy Spirit helps me to do so wisely during this week. I will also pray that sometimes, for a moment or two, my inner critic will crack and I will experience in earnest. Will you pray that for me too?

****I’m honored to be a guest of World Vision’s this week in Sri Lanka. I’m here with a group of very talented bloggers as we see the development work being done in this island nation. Full disclosure: While World Vision is hosting this trip, they are not paying any of us for children sponsored. I have long been an advocate of World Vision’s (since 30 Hour Famine days, remember that?) and of child sponsorship (since I went to Bolivia with Compassion and Brio magazine, remember Brio?). My family sponsors kids through both Compassion and World Vision and I will always tell you it’s one of the best ways to spend $35 a month. It really works. If you are interested in sponsoring a child in Sri Lanka, click here.

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§ 4 Responses to Should I Be Here?

  • Roxy, so happy to be reading here on “Roxy Composed.” Awesome. You raise such great questions… and what I often conclude is that, at the end of the day, this Christian-life is a journey of hard questions. Keep asking. And I will pray for you on this journey. Be OUR eyes and ears. Show me a world I’ve never seen in person. Blessings to YOU and to the writing.

  • Sherry Stone says:

    Roxy, God will open your eyes to things he wants you to see and to write about. It is up to you express in words the vision he gives you. You have been so blessed.

  • Heidi O. says:

    This is such a fantastic post – so very honest. I work at an intersection between the nonprofit world – and blogging – and I have wondered about so many of your own doubts when hearing of both Christian, and non Christian Organizations taking similar trips where bloggers visit a developing country.

    I tend to believe that depending on the Org. goals – it can be more than worthwhile – but there are also many Orgs that don’t have a clear vision and cause more harm than good.

    I’m not Christian – nor do identify myself with any religion – but if I were in your shoes I would pray too. I would pray to be be able to be useful, and for guidance. Most importantly, I would probably just take things one moment at a time and see how it all unfolds.

    Thanks for this honesty. I will be back to continue reading about your trip!

  • i’d say the mere fact you’re asking the question means you definitely should be there. thank you for going.

    and thank you for taking us with you through your words.

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