Holding up their Arms

IMG_1227These past two weeks, I’ve been working with 6 Azusa Pacific University students in Sweetwaters. This team has really stood out because of their hard work, great preparation, and initiative. They’ve been able to partner at a creche, organize a fun day to say thanks to our Sweetwaters teenagers who volunteer with us in the community, and have led Life Group Bibles studies. This week, they are running a 3-day holiday club in Sweetwaters (which they planned, along with our staff).

The APU team designed an Amazing Race (Sweetwaters style) for the Kids Crew (teens from Sweetwaters community who help with our weekly kids club). The teens had an awesome time! At one station, everyone had to kiss a chicken! :)
The APU team designed an Amazing Race (Sweetwaters style) for the Kids Crew (teens from Sweetwaters community who help with our weekly kids club). The teens had an awesome time! At one station, everyone had to kiss a chicken! 🙂

The story the APUers used for their Life Group lessons was one from the Old Testament, and I think it serves as a good picture of what this team has done for us. The story is of Moses and the Israelites battling against their enemies. As long as Moses raised his staff above his head, the Israelites continued winning. If the staff was ever lowered, the Israelites began losing. Keeping your arms upraised for a short while is easy, but doing it for a long time is very difficult. Moses grew weak holding the staff and the Israelites began losing until two friends came and supported his arms, enabling Moses to continue his God-given task. The APU team challenged the Life Groups to support each other with their God-given callings, and to keep on following God when life is difficult.

Life Group with the APU team. Even the craft related to the lesson of "holding up each other" and supporting what God has called our friends to do.
Life Group with the APU team. Even the craft related to the lesson of “holding up each other” and supporting what God has called our friends to do.

This APU team (as well as the team from iThemba Denmark board that just came to visit) have been “arm-raisers” for the full-time staff at iThemba. Their enthusiasm, their new ideas, their willingness to jump in and help where needed, their prayer and encouragement have given new strength to our staff. Doing short term trips is easy, but working in the same community day in and day out can be tiring, as our staff well know. These teams have been able to support our long-term staff, and have given them the extra support they need to keep going. It is also exciting to think about the people all over the world (like you!) who are praying for iThemba and the community of Sweetwaters, or who are giving financially to the work. You are also “holding up our arms” by helping us continue to accomplish God’s will in this area.

  • Pray for God to continue to work through the APU team this week as they run their holiday club. On the first day they had over 200 kids, and over 70 teens.
  • Pray that God would use this trip in the lives of these APUers long-term.
  • Pray for the team of 8 from Leek Pentacostal, who are here with us for 2 weeks. They are running a Holiday Club this week, as well as working in creches next week.
  • Pray for health, energy, and good team work.
  • Pray that God would use these 2 holiday clubs in the lives of kids and teens in Sweetwaters.

Why Teams?

A team member from the Danish team helping to replaster SiyaZama creche. The team worked with the creche teacher and community members to fix up the building and build a jungle gym. The creche raised funds themselves to cover part of the project.
A team member from the Danish team helping to replaster SiyaZama creche. The team worked with the creche teacher and community members to fix up the building and build a jungle gym. The creche raised funds themselves to cover part of the project.

The hassle of accommodation, food, and transport, the cost of traveling thousands of miles—is it really worth it, for a team from another culture who cannot speak the language and will only be there a few weeks?

I have to answer this question to myself and others at least once a week. Here is my latest answer:

Teams fit directly with iThemba’s passion to link communities. The overseas communities in the UK, USA and Denmark help us by their financial gifts, inspire the Mpumuza community through their partnerships in practical work and encourage us with their enthusiasm, reminding us how amazing our jobs really are!

We help them by giving them a vision of healthy community engagement, educating them on how to best use their resources in South African development work, giving them opportunities to serve, and hopefully creating a space for God to directly speak to them and challenge them on issues related to service, justice, mercy and compassion.

We strive for these trips to be more than just 2 weeks of poverty tourism. We want them to be 2 weeks that start a life-time of service to the global body of Christ.

(and after a vacation and a week of sick leave, I’m back at work. This blog won’t be so silent anymore!) 🙂

Poverty Tourism

(It’s my weekend off this week, so rather than writing, I am going to post an AMAZING article that relates to short term missions that we ask all our teams to read. It is very convicting. Pass it along to any friends or churches who are engaged in short term missions. See you next week!)

The jolt in Port-au-Prince herniated a disk in my lower back last month. The pain is making it hard to sleep at night. I’ve walked with a sideways bent and haven’t been able to pick up my two young children since. But here’s the thing: The jolt happened while riding a motorcycle taxi to a meeting in a tent camp where 50,000 people live under tarps. So I can’t much indulge in feeling sorry for myself. I travel to Haiti regularly for work with a nonprofit, but right now I’m back in Florida where I have a safe, dry home to sleep in; I have a bed; I’ve already been to the physical therapist four times; I can afford ibuprofen, Tylenol, and Aleve; I eat more than enough each day. You get the idea.
So when I start complaining, then remember this context, it seems my basic
choices are either to be grateful or to be an ***.

On one hand, this is the proper perspective. On the other, this is a potentially exploitative “benefit” of what are typically called some variation of a “service trip,” but are also sometimes critically called “poverty tourism.”
We see people suffering so much more than us, and then come back and say,
“It just makes you so grateful for what you have.”
Or,
“It puts life in perspective.”
The motorcycle taxi driver I was riding with lost a staggering amount in the earthquake. The church he attends collapsed on more than 200 people inside, his friends, his relatives. After getting off his motorcycle, I was soon talking with people in the camp who lost everything and have little reasonable hope for improvement any time soon.
A sore back? Sheesh.

But if the longest lasting result of my working in or visiting a place with much suffering, is that I feel a little better about my own life … well, then I’ve probably exploited people struggling with poverty even more than they’re being exploited already.
So for me, three differences come to mind to keep these trips from being “poverty tourism”:

First, who and how do I visit people? Is it marked by dignity, without patronizing, with humility, as a learner. Are we visiting with people or an organization who have respectful, engaged relationships with the community? What kind of photos do we take or stories do we tell? What side comments do we make to our fellow travelers? Do we ask ourselves the hard questions? How do we, or shouldn’t we, talk about “them?”
Second, and related, does it make a difference to how I live “back home?” In how I give, what politics I engage in, or in whatever the area is that we each can make a difference to the systems that perpetuate pain. How do I think and talk and act?
Third, is my visit only the beginning of a long-term commitment to finding effective ways to help? Even if I worked hard to build a community center or learning language or to add on to a church building, it wasn’t much in the big picture. People are often gracious hosts and share the best part of their smiles and lives with us when we visit. But sometimes that seems to give us an excuse to quarantine the unsettling part of
our experience, the part that might demand a lot of us.
These are some of the factors for me. I’m in Haiti many times a year, but I still need to check myself.

If we come back with a kind of souvenir that makes us feel more comfortable about our lives, then it’s likely been exploitation.
If we come back and we’re more uncomfortable, and also committed to smart, respectful ways to help, then maybe we properly honor the hospitality we’ve received.
Can we find good ways to contribute to each other’s well being?

Some people think there shouldn’t be these exchanges at all. I don’t agree. I think they’re important for working for justice. But I do think there are differences between traveling as a poverty tourist and a citizen of the world.

Kent Annan is co-director of Haiti Partners (www.haitipartners.org), which has set up an Earthquake Response Fund. He is the author of After Shock, which explores questions of faith, doubt, and searching, and he is also the author of Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle: Living Fully, Loving Dangerously, which is about living and working in Haiti.