Saturday, May 28, 2016

Parent Bias Blocks Message, Prevents Better Response

[UPDATE May 28, 2016:  Chris Thompson has a longer article on the subject today, with a lot more detail about the problems with short term missions abroad and to Alaska.]

All decent parents naturally jump in to protect their children.  But how they see their role as protector varies in different situations.  Some let kids experiment and take risks.  Some don't.  Some block them from what they see as harmful information.  What and when should kids know more about the tooth fairy or sex is tricky.  

But sometimes kids need to face evidence that makes them uncomfortable.  I'd like to offer this parent different option than the denial that her letter to the editor suggests.  And, who knows, after getting her initial anger off her chest in the letter below, perhaps she calmed down and came up with my suggestion on her own.

Here's the letter to the editor in Wednesday's paper that got my attention:
Don’t criticize selflessness
I am the mother of a 16-year-old teenager who is going on the St. John United Methodist Church mission trip to South Africa at the end of May. This trip was mentioned in Chris Thompson’s article “Why Short-Term Mission Trips May Do More Harm Than Good.” Thirty young adults and 10 adults are giving up two weeks of their summer to help complete living quarters for the people of Ocean View, South Africa. They are also helping to improve soccer fields and related structures for a local soccer organization. Money has been raised specially for the purpose of this trip and many of the teenagers have worked very hard for the last two years to earn their own money to pay for their travel expenses. For someone to write that these teens and adults may be doing more harm than good is heartbreaking to me. We constantly fault the younger generation for being self-absorbed. Here is a group who will make a huge difference in the lives of the community of Ocean View, and they are being criticized for it. Chris Thompson owes these selfless people an apology. — 
Carla Wight
Who is this evil Chris Thompson who dares to raise questions about the moral value of a mission trip to do good in Africa?  According to the ADN,
"Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,"

The original article was written byThompson, the man who writes the weekly column in the ADN on religious issues in Anchorage and beyond.  The article talks about why sometimes such trips can do harm and also gives examples of mission trips that do work for both the helpers and the receivers.

Here's the part that Ms. Wight seems to specifically object to:
"A large local church group will shortly depart for South Africa, an expensive trip. What's really going on here? In a paper published in the journal Trends and Issues in Missions, Liberty University professor Don Fanning makes a powerful case that short-term missions can create dependencies and problems among the very people short-term missionaries are supposed to be helping. South Africa, like Alaska, is about 80 percent Christian.
Church attendance, a key measure of religiosity, shows South Africa's weekly church attendance at 56-60 percent per week, while recent Gallup data shows Alaska weekly attendance ranks it in the bottom 10 states, with 26 percent attending weekly. The mission field is here in Alaska, as I've argued before, not other areas of the world. Many local churches are missing the boat: local member involvement is critical."
I understand part of Ms. Wight's reaction.  The timing of the article is difficult.  It's the end of May.  The group is about to leave or may have already left.  The people have most assuredly already got their tickets and there is no way that they can gracefully or economically pull out of the trip and look for one that is more in keeping with the best of Christian theology.   Furthermore, it's a bit of a downer to have someone raise questions about your do-good trip to Africa just as you are about to leave.

But I find Ms. Wight's reaction more problematic.
"For someone to write that these teens and adults may be doing more harm than good is heartbreaking to me."
Ms. Wight has blocked out the possibility that Thompson is right.  She's heartbroken, not because some short-term missions may do harm, but because of how it will make the teens - including her daughter [son] -  feel.  Sort of like being concerned about the doctor's feelings when he's about to perform surgery and someone brings him an article that questions that sort of surgery.  Sorry, it's too late, everything is set up and the patient's insurance has already been approved.   Seems to me we should be focused on the patient, not the doctor.  And the top priority of missions should be to improve the lives of the recipients.  Not to make the do-gooders feel good about themselves.  Ideally, they should be humbled that they are blessed to be in a situation where they can help others.

Thompson's taking off point is an article from Trends In Missions from Liberty University. This isn't a study by people who dislike religion.  Liberty University  bills itself as the world's largest Christian University.   Fairbanks senator Pete Kelly got his undergraduate degree there.

Here's the concern.  The author, Dr. Don Fanning writes:
"My father once told me that the surest way to create your worst enemy out of your best friend is to loan him money. When he is suppose [sic] to return the funds, he will likely not be available to do so and the mere reminder to him will begin a deteriorating relationship that inevitably will end in animosity.
In this chapter we will deal with the following topics:
  • The dangers of dependency
  • Short-term trips and dependency
  • How to avoid dependency
  • Four Perspectives for Using Money in Missions"
This could actually be a much greater learning experience for Ms. Wight's daughter [son] than anyone anticipated.

Instead of saying, "Don't listen to that man who is questioning what you're doing", a more useful response would be to give her daughter [son] and the whole group the Chris Thompson article and the Liberty University article and have them discuss the two articles among themselves and with the people they will be working with in South Africa.

There is even a seven principle checklist at the end of the Fanning article which they can use to evaluate their project and, if after the trip, they think the article is good, they can make sure St. John's uses the principles to choose future projects:

  •  Goals and methods of helping are not defined unilaterally. Do not develop a plan then invite non-Westerners to join in at a later stage. 
  • Do not base the relationship on a one-way flow of resources. "Complementarity, not assistance, lies at the heart of effective partnerships....A partnership moves beyond assistance to complementarity when each partner makes different but crucial contributions to a common goal.”
  • Do not allow money to become the most highly valued resource. We tend to put a premium on our own resources rather than on the resources of our non-Western counterparts. In most cases, non-Western partners may rely on Western partners for financial and technological resources, but Western partners are dependent on the human resources, linguistic skills, cultural insight, and relevant lifestyle of their non- Western partners. ... If money becomes the driving force, the golden rule takes hold -- the one with the gold rules.
  • Do not fund the entire cost of the project without clear justification. "In the face of enormous economic inequities, there is inherent pressure on Western partners to be the "sugar daddy" for more "needy" partners.
  • Do not interfere in the administration of the partner's organization. It’s okay to give advice when asked or to admonish a partner when a serious misconduct occurs.
  • Do not do for others what they can better do for themselves. People, like organizations, become strong and effective only when they make decisions, initiate action and solve problems. This may lower the level of accomplishment short-term, but will ensure a long-term progress.
  • Do not rely on a "one-size-fits-all" policy, especially with policies. For example, one agency gives only 10% of the total need in any project. This may work well in some circumstances and be detrimental in another.
  • The key principle today is the interdependency or mutual dependency in the task of world evangelism (Rickett, 2003).
    Will the article make Ms. Wight's daughter [son] uncomfortable?  Probably.  But most real learning - where your view of the world shifts a bit - involves discomfort as your old views are challenged and you have to revise what you know.

    Helping others is always fraught with moral dilemmas, some of which are pointed out in the Fanning article.  It's hard for the helpers not to feel some superiority over the people they are helping.  And to feel pleased with themselves for doing good.  And the recipients are supposed to be grateful to you.  Actually, as the seven principles suggest, this should be a partnership in which both sides contribute what they can.  There should be givers and receivers.   Imagine 40 people showing up in this town in South Africa to build housing and soccer fields.  Unemployment is high there.  Why import Americans?  What are they contributing that the locals couldn't do themselves?

    And imagine the airfare.  I looked up tickets for the end of May and got $1,900 to South Africa.  So I looked for July thinking it would be cheaper if I booked in advance.  I got $2400.  Let's say the church got a good group rate, say $1500.  Times forty people.  That's $60,000.

    I also looked up the average salary in South Africa.  In February 2014 it was R11,641 which my computer says is $743, or $8916 per year.  The group's airfare would pay an annual salary for six people.

    Wouldn't it make more sense to hire local workers in South Africa to do the work they plan than to have 40 Americans show up for two weeks?   Maybe not.  Maybe the learning of the Americans and the fellowship they all get interacting with each other would be worth it.  But if you asked the people in South Africa whether they think importing free American labor for two weeks at the cost of $60,000 was a good deal, I bet they might think of a different way to use the money.

    And that's part of what the seven principles are about.  Involving both sides to plan the project.  But they're also about not just giving money one way, which can lead to dependence, so just sending $60,000 isn't the answer either.  But I'd say raising the money just for the Africans, without getting a trip to Africa out of it, would be a lot more selfless.  I'm not suggesting that any of these options is better.  I'm just saying all these kinds of calculations should be thought through and the African recipients should be in on the discussions, as the principles suggest.

    [UPDATE June 26, 2016:  There's been more on this issue.  Chris Thompson wrote a followup column on June 10.  And Nick Wight wrote a letter to the editor.  I'm assuming that Nick is the son of the original letter writer.  So I've changed 'daughter' in this post to 'son.'  I don't think the gender was mentioned, so I originally decided not to arbitrarily make it a male.  And I'm guessing that Nick is a male here.]

     [For those of you who have read this, I apologize for the repost. Feedburner isn't doing it's job, but the update link to Thompson's new post not the subject fills in a lot of the issues with short-term missions that he didn't talk about in the previous article.]

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