A Christian, a Muslim and a Buddhist Walk Into a Hindu Temple …

September 2, 2012 § 7 Comments

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

He holds his son up, the proud father of 28 days. He wants us to see the boy before we leave, though the still-so-small baby seems only to want to go back to the nap he was clearly interrupted from. Like all the fathers in this village, his hope for his son is to get an education. But unlike so many of the fathers we’ve met, this father wants his son to have the life he’s had. Joffrey is the imam—the Muslim leader—of the village. Though only 26 and with so much of the boyish grin still left, he has big hopes for his people. Hopes that started when he was a young boy, attending the local child societies. It was there he first encountered children from other villages—and from other faiths. He tells us it was these child societies (a program of World Vision’s) where he first gained a heart for unity among the different faiths in the area: Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims coming together for the sake of the community and for the poorest of the poor.

“There were times we attended secretly as children, without our parent’s permission. We wanted this different life. Eventually, once the leaders saw what good work the child societies were doing, it wasn’t so difficult.” « Read the rest of this entry »

The End, Then the Beginning

August 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

Copyright, 2012 World Vision. Photographed by Matthew Paul Turner

I’m not someone who likes to skip ahead and read the end of a book first. But every once in a while, when a book gets particularly terrifying, I can understand why people do it. Sometimes knowing the ends helps to give a little hope when things become dire.

Today was kind of like that. If yesterday’s closing ceremonies were like reading the end of a book, then today’s visit to a new ADP was like reading the beginning of the book … a book that immediately starts out with a cliff hanger.

At our new ADP—Mundalama, which has been in existence for less than one year—Mala, a day laborer and mother of three, worries that her eldest, her daughter, will be forced to relive her own difficult life. Mala had to drop out of school at 7 years old to go and live with another family where she cleaned and kept house for 300 rupees a month. Three hundred rupees is $3. Her father came once a month to collect the money, which gave necessary support to her four siblings. At 17 she moved to Kuwait to work as a domestic servant—where she was able to make slightly more money to send home to her family. Now she is a day laborer working in the fields and her husband in the mill. They walk 3-5 kilometers every day for work, water and food. “But,” she tells us, her daughter is “very smart, very studious.” Her daughter will escape this life. Education is her out and she is taking a scholarship exam on Saturday. This daughter smiles small half smiles into her shoulder and tells us her favorite subject is math. Her favorite thing to play? She likes to study, she says. The weight of a family’s hopes are heavy on her. When pressed, she concedes she’ll also play ball sometimes with the kids. She is not sponsored yet, which makes her sad, her friends are beginning to get sponsors. She is awaiting her letter.

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When Aid Ends

August 28, 2012 § 5 Comments

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

Today I saw something I have never seen in the developing world before. I saw the end of poverty.

I am honestly not even talking in hyperbole—though if ever there was a day characterized by grand gestures, it was today. Today World Vision left the Willuwa ADP (area development program) here in Sri Lanka. And it was a day of celebration. Yes, there were tears; yes, there was sadness. But these were not tears of desperation nor were the goodbyes tinged with anxiety. This was the sadness of saying farewell to friends. The people of Willuwa were sad to see their friends from World Vision leave, but they also knew they were being left in good hands: their own.

The question of when aid ends is rarely asked. It’s easy to assume once a charity is in an area, they’ll always be in that area. Perhaps that’s because rate of change is so slow. Perhaps it’s because the developing world has always been the developing world. Perhaps it’s because we don’t actually expect charity efforts to work. Whatever the reason, an exit strategy is rarely part of the plan. But if today taught me anything, it’s that the end needs to be in mind from the very beginning.

So when should aid end? I am sure there is a much more detailed, scientifically and sociologically sound definition than this guiding World Vision’s (and other’s) strategies, but based on what I witnessed today, here’s what I would say: « Read the rest of this entry »

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…?

« Read the rest of this entry »

An Interview with Laura Blank of World Vision

August 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Below is an interview I did for Reject Apathy with Laura Blank, a World Vision staff member working in Haiti. She and I talked about what’s worked in Haiti, what hasn’t and what is needed for sustainable change.


What will go into that discussion are more long-term—how do we improve the community to make it more stable? So that is things like livelihood, and security, and education and health care, kind of those soft targets, not providing food and water and shelter, the basic needs, but what overall will make a community more stable? How do we bring in jobs, how do we make sure health care is affordable for people, how can children go to school, do they have a place to go to school? But I think one of the things that’s been part of the ongoing discussion right now is this idea of building up civil groups, advocating for Haitian leadership at the local level, at the national level, to really empower them to take the lead on creating that vision for what they want Haiti to look like long-term, and then for us to be able to walk alongside them with the resources and the expertise we have to say, “This is your vision, this is what we can do to help you, let’s work together.”

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

Can Haiti Still Be Saved?

August 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

ImageThis is an article I wrote for the July/August 2010 issue of RELEVANT, six months after the January 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti. I traveled to Haiti, interviewed everyone from USAID workers to church leaders on the ground. The trip (and article) changed my perspective on international aid, disaster relief, and political action, and gave me a newfound appreciation for the aid workers who spend so much time trying to get it right. This article was the recipient of the 2011 Folio Eddie award for best single article in the religion/spirituality class.

“We Need Help”

It’s a simple phrase, even an obvious one.

Simple because of its directness and obvious because, well, it’s spray-painted on a pile of rubble in the middle of Port-au-Prince. This one and countless other messages like it were painted throughout the city in the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake—one of the largest natural disasters to ever affect the Western Hemisphere. We need help. But how? How can we even begin to help? How did it get this bad? And, perhaps most pressingly, where is God in all this?

Standing on a hillside overlooking Haiti’s nearly destroyed capital city, that spray-painted phrase feels as accurate now, six months after the earthquake, as it did then. Even though money poured in from all sides (remember the $10 donation to the Red Cross via text message? The telethon with every celebrity ever known?), it seems like nothing has happened—as if this tiny half-island nation has somehow become a hope-free zone.

No one can prepare you for Haiti. Sure, as the buzz cause of the year, there’s certainly no shortage of articles to read, organizations to interview and experts to analyze. But to try to understand Haiti, to try to understand why it’s still this bad after so much time and, perhaps most difficult of all, to try to find hope in the entire mess, you have to make sense of a nation with a brutal history, a country that was a mess of corruption and poverty before a 7.0 earthquake destroyed its capital city. To understand what’s being done, where money is going, what the outlook of the country is—well, you need to go back to the beginning.

To read the rest of the article, click here (sign-up required)

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