The latest episode of 19 Kids and Counting features some of the Duggar family going to a few Central American nations to spread Christmas cheer through gifts and the story of Jesus. Naturally, the episode ends with tears and a sense of self-empowerment.
Rather than harp on the problems that exist in such trips (feel free to highlight them in the comments), I want to focus on the feelings that are experienced by the family. Specifically, the fact that the trip was such a powerful experience for many of the kids. This is a very real emotion that is impossible to replicate.
I do not wish to argue that the emotions experienced are reason enough to encourage these kind of mission trips, in many ways they can be what makes them so bad. However, there is a wide range of emotions experienced when seeing poverty first-hand. People want to have the experience and take opportunities like mission trips as a way to have it.
Africa Is Not a Country addresses, to a certain extent, this issue with the recent trip by Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw. I do not disagree with what they say, but think that we can be too dismissive when it comes to how Kershaw feels after his trip to Zambia. Yes, it comes from a place of privilege, but is it possible that it can allow him to better recognize this dynamic?
I want to be explicit when I say that poverty tourism and mission trips are plain bad. However, to take a stance which assumes that people will not continue to go on such trips is foolish. Making fun of such people over and over is in some ways worse. Yes, it is easy to laugh and and be repulsed by the Duggars going to Central America, but why not try to engage with people like them and encourage ways for them to have a greater impact, a better understanding, and the sense of fulfillment that they are clearly sinking.
It is not about us. A great phrase but one which I do not think is possible for anyone to actually follow. The most selfless of individuals still have their own physical, spiritual and emotional needs. Nobody can tell me that making another person happy does not make them happy.
So, how do we harness all of this? Maybe a good first step is to show what it is like after leaving trips like the Duggars take. Let them see what actually happens to all the toys they give out and the true impact of their actions. People want to 'do something.' It is equally wrong to say 'do something' as it is to say 'do nothing.' Although equally open, I prefer 'do the right thing,' but Spike Lee showed us that it is not so easy.