The Problem with One Little White Girl

From Joanie:
An article has been circulating the internet recently, about the downside of “voluntourism.” While the author makes some good points, it is very generalized. She notes the often unskilled participants who show up, full of fervor to do Good Works who may in the end do more harm than good. How does she define harm? In the quantitative standards of improved health care, access to clean water, necessary buildings, etc.
These things are all very necessary, it’s true, and it’s why so many people want to volunteer or go on mission trips—they hope to help. She notes in her final argument that people who sign up for international volunteer trips should think twice, and even go so far as to say, “Sadly, taking part in an international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the ‘white savior’ complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.”
Yes, that is true in some ways and applicable to some people. Determining what your intentions are before engaging in that kind of trip is important. But she’s missing a big element of this kind of travel, one that the leader of a trip I went on in 2007 summed up nicely, “There is no way to quantify the transformation in an individual’s heart.”
And sometimes that individual is not the person (or persons) in a developing country. Sometimes it’s the person going on the trip.
Flash back to 2007:
I was grappling with faith—whether I had any, what it was in, why was I even alive? I prayed for the first time in five years in January of 2007. My prayer was really a question: What exactly is it you want me to do, God?
The answer came in a voice I swear was not my own. Feel free to judge me or say I was silly or imagining things. I don’t care. This is my story.
The answer: Go check your email.
I didn’t pray for five years, and I’m told to go check my [expletive deleted] email.
So I do it. And in it, there’s an email from my voice teacher which reads: Sopranos Needed.
So I think it’s a church job. A place for me to sing, to listen, to find whatever it is that I’m supposed to find.
It’s only when I open the email that I read the rest of the subject line: Sopranos Needed For Musical Mission Trip to Kenya.
And I knew then, that God was sending me to Africa. Now, that may sound like exactly like the “white savior” stuff that Pippa Biddle wrote about in her article.
And when I met with Randall Bradley, the professor and choir director who took students on this trip every other year, he actively worked to stop that expectation. We were to go as a choir, sing at AIDS clinics, orphanages, and long term missions. Our choir would sing for a group, who would then sing for us, and then we would sing together.
I know, it sounds like we were going to hold hands and smile and sing until rainbows came out of our [expletive deleted].
And I thought that, for a while. Every Monday night for the six months before the trip, we would have a rehearsal to prepare musically. And to talk about the trip, both from a spiritual perspective and a practical perspective: what does it mean to be a white missionary in a black country that was once under British rule, have you gotten your typhoid shot yet you-had-better-get-it-soon-then-this-is-not-a-joke, where are you in your own prayer life and what can you do to better prepare yourself for it.
These were questions I’d never encountered, things I’d never had to think of. I was a well-traveled person even then, but in my previous travels, I had worn gowns and sung in castles the Hapsburgs once lived in. Malaria was the farthest thing from my mind. And speaking openly about spiritual readiness was something that had only vaguely been mentioned at church camp in high school.
My family didn’t approve of the trip—my mother honestly thought the government would fall while I was there and she would never see me again. My colleagues thought I was crazy—how was this trip in any way going to contribute to my future work as a classical singer?
Monday nights ceased to be something that made me uncomfortable and wonder if this was seriously what God wanted. Monday started to be the day I looked forward to, because, and I didn’t know it at the time, I was starving for spiritual fulfillment, the spark of the creator of the Universe, the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.
If you’re reading this, and you’re thinking, I had no idea Joanie was a Christian nutjob, better stop reading before she indoctrinates me, well, I can’t stop you. But I would like to point out that I rarely publicly proclaim my faith, and never do so in a way that is detrimental to the beliefs of others. If you’d like to continue a conversation with me privately, please do so.
But back to the story:
I wrote in an article for Classical Singer Magazine some months after the trip about the experience of being an opera singer going to Africa. And I wrote something in it about how nothing prepares you for the fear at 30,000 feet that sets in when they announce that the plane is descending to Nairobi and there is absolutely no turning back.
It didn’t help that the in-flight movie was Blood Diamond. Seriously. SERIOUSLY.
The next two weeks of my life were full of joy and sorrow, as I became close to the people I traveled with in ways that I have not experienced elsewhere. I still keep in touch with nearly everyone that went on the trip.
I met people, and talked to people, who told me their stories, stories I would never have heard had I just sent a check in to an organization that provided clean water. Did they still need clean water? Yes, of course. And I could empty my bank account every day for the rest of my life, and it would put a drop of clean water in the bucket of world needs. Did the people that I talked to, the girls who had narrowly escaped FGM and early marriage to stay in school, need someone to listen? To learn about them and their culture and the values they held dear?
I’d like to think so. And I needed them.
I needed to sing in a church service on the birthday of 80 year old Sho-Sho (Swahili for Grandmother—she was called that by everyone in her village) the day that the sermon was about the prodigal son.
Because I was that prodigal son.
And after that service, I ate and danced and sang with people who I doubt think of me every day. But I think of them. And I am grateful that a two week trip where my skill set was not terribly useful in a tangible, quantitatively measurable way changed my life.
And there are others whose lives changed as a result of that trip. Not because of me specifically, but because on that trip, I learned how to be part of the body of Christ, and to contribute to others. Financially, musically, and spiritually. If it weren’t for that trip, I doubt that I would give those in need. But in every homeless person on the subway, I see the hungry eyes of the children who lived in caves near a trash heap and, like their counterparts in New York City, dug through the trash for food. And it burns a hole right through the greedy part of my heart.
Dr. Bradley still leads this trip, every other year. And every other year, new people become part of a family. And we take care of our own. The former members of these trips annually donate to the tuition of girls from rural villages to continue school. The people who run the school have said that the work our teams have done “will form a significant chapter in the eventual education of this area of the world.”

We are not their savior, in any way shape or form. We were lucky—or blessed, or whatever word you want to choose—to see what life is like for another culture entirely. I am evidence that a trip like this does indeed contribute to positive growth. It was more than just my psyche that was saved there, it was my soul. That’s the kind of long term solution that can make real change happen, for a lifetime.

Photos of the girls whose tuition is supported
by former member of the Baylor Music Teams.

2 comments

  1. Joanie, it is so great to read your words here. I hope you are well and thriving. It sounds like you are. I'm now in Decatur, GA. You can get my contact info from Randall.
    And, as for the content, of course the most any of these missions can hope to accomplish is to adjust ever so slightly the ethno-centric, materialistic, spoiled rotten world-view of us Americans who participate. On every mission I have helped lead, that has happened for more than one person. One next prays that the world-view adjustment will affect how they consume, how they give, and how they vote. If so, we are very slightly ahead of the game.
    Sharyn Dowd

  2. Hey, I didn't know you were a Christian nutjob! I'm not, but I feel sorry for anyone who would let that stop them from reading a blog post, especially such an inspiring one.

    I think you and the author of the original article both make valid points. You are both right, and your points aren't mutually exclusive. The author, at least in my interpretation, isn't saying not to go on these trips or pursue opportunities to help others, but to make sure you find opportunities where you can be most effective. I mean, who thought it was a good idea to let a bunch people with no building experience build a library? In that case their efforts truly were to the detriment of others. I'm sure it was a good character building, life changing experience for those girls, but I'd say find an opportunity that fits your skill set, or leave that [expletive deleted] at home.

    I think your experience demonstrates the point pretty well, by providing an example of how things should be done. You are good at singing, and you went over there and used that talent to touch other people's lives. No harm to them, no harm to you, and apparently a lot of good for everyone involved. I would say you are a good example of responsible voluntourism, and you should be proud of that. It's beautiful that it affected your life in such a positive way.

    I guess my overall point is that we are selling ourselves short if we say these trips are only about the growth that those that take them experience, and not about the benefits people are trying to provide to others. They can and should be about both.

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