Friday, December 21, 2007

Charity Tourism

Rod Dreher, over at CrunchyCon has a new post about Charity Tourism. In the post, he tells a story he heard recently from a friend:
True story: a guy here in a Texas suburb wants to teach his children something about poverty in America, and about their own blessedness. He somehow finds a needy family at Christmastime, and decides that he and his children are going to shower them with gifts. The guy gets his friends and their children involved. They descend upon the house trailer of an impoverished family, bearing gifts. All 30 -- 30! -- of the beneficent visitors pile into the trailer to watch the scraggly urchins open their gifts. And the guy leaves satisfied that his children now know the True Meaning of Christmas.
Rod goes on to tell how "nauseated" both he and his friend were by this man's actions, and I agree with them entirely. His actions were degrading to this family. He treated them as if they were animals, not people, and certainly nowhere near equals with himself. He embarrassed the parents of this family in front of their children. And, in the end, I did not teach the "True Meaning of Christmas" at all. His children did not learn how to give to others unselfishly, as he intended, but learned how to impress others and feel good about yourself. Most importantly, in the end, he made no real difference. Any benefit the "poor" family derived from these gifts is temporary. They're going to be without money again tomorrow and in a similar situation next Christmas.

The same should be added about this new popular trend among upper-class suburbanites of "volunteer vacations" or "charity vacations," such as the ones offered at Volunteer Visions. Such practices degrade the poor of the world to a level slightly above animals. They are treated like something to gawk at, a monkey in the zoo. And, as in the example above, there is no real permanent effect.

I have been reading a book about the life of Blessed Father Cosmas, Apostle to Zaire, which I picked up at the Monastery last weekend. He once wrote about missionary work that "what's important is that the giving be true and total, without holding back, with a disposition to self-sacrifice and self-denial, and with the aim of leaving our bones among the natives." That is, in order to be effective, in order to leave a real and permanent mark, your charity must be a real sacrifice, not a paltry portion of your abundance, and it must be given with only love in mind, only the wish to uplift the individual/s it is given to, not for your own glory or ease of conscience. In addition, some one single donation is worthless. There must be dedication, often lifelong (or even longer) dedication. In short, there must be love.

I have heard another story, I believe it was about Saint Herman of Alaska, in which a young monk goes to the wise older man and asks him how missionary work can best be accomplished among the Alaskan Native peoples. The wiser, older man replies, "Love them." The end of the story is obvious to anyone who knows the history of the Eskimos; they are Orthodox Christians because of that love. Without love, nothing is accomplished, no matter how much work is put in.

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