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Change Your Words and You’ll Change the World: Why “Voluntourism” is Redeemable


It is not easy to organise an overseas short-term mission trip on top of a busy teaching load. So by the time the trip starts at the end of the second term, I am tired, and more than a little apprehensive about the upcoming ten days. My students, though are buzzing! However, as the plane circles low over Betikama Adventist College and we pull up in the lush surrounds of the Henderson field, the international airport in the Solomon Islands, I too feel myself become palpably excited and I begin to smile.

Much later that day, indeed into the early evening, the motor canoe finally rounds the point and I see the phone tower, the lights in the church next to it, the school a bit further to the right. The smile across my face widens. Batuna Adventist Vocational School, we are back.

As we unload, Eros, the grandfatherly school caretaker, is hovering with some instruction about the house we stay in. Graewin, the energetic spokesperson for the neighbouring village we will visit for church the next morning, waits for me under the awning of the ABC shop, which, when open, sells Sabbath school lessons and hymn books alongside bush knives and packet noodles. My students also greet their friends from the year before. My excitement can now be measured.

As I lie awake that night watching the mosquito net drift in the breeze, breathing in the humidity, I think, “It is good to be home.”

Ten days later, we clear customs and push our trolleys, with relief, through the opening to our waiting families. Each of us heads off to our separate houses. We find the lights are strangely quiet without a nearby generator, we rediscover the joy of a shower head, collapse in our beds, and snuggle up to the comfort of our doona, and think, “It is good to be home.”

But yet I am not. Something isn’t quite right. I feel slightly empty, like I am not quite home. A not so little part of me now resides in the Solomon Islands. And although, as an Australian, I am unqualified to speak on their behalf, I must, for they most likely will not.

We Have Failed: The New Black
The absurdity of me, a physics teacher, taking 22 unqualified teenagers to work at a vocational school, that trains tradespeople, is not lost on me. Nor are the inefficiencies, both financial and logistical. I put this to the principal of Batuna Adventist Vocational School, Cherry Galo. He looked at the dormitory we had just painted and then at me, “When I see this building I don’t see paint, I see your love.”

Being honest that mistakes are being made is an important and healthy step towards an intelligent and responsive engagement with our world. The TED talk video about NGO’s admitting failure and Heather Ruiz’s article doing the rounds on social media do this. Yet these articles represent another stage in the ever never ending post-colonial cringe about, even derision of, development work. Once it was good enough for missionaries to treat the locals as equals, then we decided that locals could do the work that we had been doing, then we worked out that the products that we were sending could be sourced locally, now it seems we have worked out we shouldn’t be doing anything at all. Unfortunately, in all this we haven’t bothered to allow the recipients of all our “cleverness” to actually inform us what they want, to allow them to ask for help on their terms. To ultimately, be grateful recipients of the blessings we would like to share with them.

I have no doubt that short, and long, term mission trips do create dependence, are too often culturally insensitive, and are often for personal gratification. I have seen the evidence and consequences for myself in the Solomon Islands. Not all trips suffer these problems, though. In fact, short-term mission trips are a redeemable, and perhaps even necessary, contribution to making informed and engaged Christians.

Stages of Social Justice
One of my teaching colleagues teared up after worship this week. Her son, who came to the Solomon Islands this year, had been reflecting on the year, she said. He said to her that this trip was the best experience of his life. Her tears were ones of gratitude to myself and the other teacher who organised the trip that her teenage son considered service to others the best experience of his life. Does he understand the politics of privilege? Is he sensitive to creating “rice Christians”? Does he appreciate the complexities of development work? Are the parents of his fellow team members more concerned about their child having a great experience than they are about the condition of dormitories without flushing toilets? I think it is likely that none of these insights will ever be possible without first-hand, practical experience of life and work in a developing nation.

Maybe later in life, my students will realise that fighting for justice and against oppression is much more complicated that a coat of paint on a dormitory. But for now they have taken the first, perhaps necessary, step on the journey towards a more mature view of social justice.

Gifts That Keep Giving
Our pile of rubbish from cleaning and sanding the dormitory slowly grew over the week of our project. In the pile were the broken paint rollers that I had purchased new, but being the cheapest model were not up to the task. The pile was moved to where it could be processed and there I watched a teacher remove the same broken roller to be used for some purpose. That teacher later gladly accepted the hammer head, minus the broken handle, I had put in my luggage. “Yes, we can fix that,” he said. I know that giving can hurt the receiver, but I always wonder if I have given enough.

In each village we visit, we run a children’s programme, well attended by the whole village. Part of the programme consists of children’s action songs. Afterwards, a young lady approached our song leaders and was kneeling next to them, frantically writing down all the words of the song. The church elder standing next to me explained, “She is a our Grade 1 teacher.” When resource collection for a teacher consists of jotting down on a scrap of paper, how can I not leave pens and exercise books for them to use in class? How can I not arrange for more tools to be sent to the vocational school so that they have more than one shifting spanner?

Of course, leaving equipment and giving things to individuals can have unforeseen consequences. The person receiving the gift may decide they want more, they may also decide they don’t need it and the gift wastes away. By presenting some people with gifts it may create jealousies and unintended power plays. Despite all of this, it is a natural impulse to want to share what we have with those who do not. Is it possible to do it in a way that is sustainable? I hope so.

Tell The Right Story 
I wrote earlier this year about the importance of having an appropriate guiding narrative. The language we use to talk about mission service shapes the experience and often betrays our underlying motivation and attitudes. Young people, such as the high school students that I take, often don’t have the language, or a narrative, to frame their experience. My students when confronted by the vastly different culture of the Solomon Islands use whatever narrative they can find. More often than not it is the narrative that I provide for them. For this reason, great care is needed to ensure that the stories that they tell about their experience reflect the sort of experiences that I want for them to have.

I have tried to be as careful as possible with one particular word, “help”. I particularly dislike the phrase “we are going to help them”, with its overt us and them tone. Phrases like, “work alongside” or “partner with” better reflect an acknowledgment that we, as visitors from another culture, do not have the answers or solutions to some preconceived “problem.” Rather these words say, “We are here, how can we serve?” Another word that troubles me is “experience”.

This is the correct word to describe encounters on a mission trip. However, in a world where experiences can be purchased in much the same was as confectionaries from a shelf, the word has become polluted with self-centredness. A carefully designed and implemented mission trip is not merely another experience that can be purchased from the educational buffet. Rather, it is a profoundly and deeply transformational opportunity to say, “I am here, how can I serve?”

Brian Howell, in his book “Short-Term Mission,” highlights the importance of the trip leadership in setting an appropriate narrative to describe the trip. This is a responsibility that I have taken very seriously, especially since I am have been working with high school students who as noted are bereft of a narrative. If there is valid criticism of short term mission trips, and I agree that there is ample, the criticism has to be directed not at the trip, or the concept of the trip, but the leadership that has been negligent in providing an appropriate narrative framework for the trip.

Two Classes of Development Workers
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” – Judges 21:25

Let me state it clearly what I see as the problem, and hence solutions, from a South Pacific perspective. We as a church have a professional development agency, ADRA. It is held accountable by both regulation and industry accreditation. All of us are proud of the work that it does. Yet it is hard, apart from fundraising, to become involved in an ADRA project. It seems that there are professional development workers and then there are lay church members who are allowed to fundraise.

Nearly every church I have visited has some form of overseas project they are supporting. It might be through the South Pacific Division’s Adopt-A-Clinic programme, it may be a passionate lay-member raising supplies for a supportive ministry like Asian Aid or Sonship, it is sometimes a group of people sending containers of equipment to friends they have working at specific locations, or it is often teams of young people who simply want to go overseas and do something to help. In this way there are parallel efforts in many churches: the professional ADRA and the lay projects. Each of these projects usually have merit and can make a difference. There is little, if any, oversight to ensure that the manner in which the projects are conducted ensures positive outcomes rather than the problems so clearly elucidated in other sources. Further, the absence of strong oversight and coordination allows hidden subtextual narratives. The project itself may contribute positively to a community, but the attitude of the volunteers and their actions while part of the project may be problematic.

I propose that a set of country specific resources be produced that project leaders are required to complete with their team as part of the preparation. The resources could consist of check lists, but also very specific instructions regarding appropriate cultural behaviour, dress, actions and education relating to the dangers of ill-thought out development action. Crucially though, these resources must be developed with significant input from the host communities.

When Did We See You Hungry?
A friend, when recounting the first time he travelled to the Solomon Islands many years after his wife lived as a missionary’s child there, describes how he was overwhelmed by the experience. He was confronted by the basic living conditions and the difficulties encountered each day by the locals. Upon leaving, he says he took off his watch, removed whatever he had in his wallet and left it with someone who could use it. Moments when hearts connect across cultures are what make short-term mission trips special. They are truly transformative experiences for the people who go on them and with appropriate guidance and strong leadership they can leave a positive legacy in the communities that are visited. In the rush to prove ourselves “culturally enlightened”, let’s try to avoid discarding this often flawed but redeemable vessel.


Clinton Jackson teaches physics, chemistry and science at Brisbane Adventist College. He has taken trips to the Solomon Islands in five of the nine years he has worked there.

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