This morning I saw a link on a friend’s Facebook wall to a blog post titled: “The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys)” by Pippa Biddle. I don’t know Pippa at all, but her story conveyed through this post has a familiar tone to it. Overseas short term mission trips and the voluntourism movement in international aid efforts has been justifiably criticized for quite some time now because of the colonial and racist overtones and attitudes within them. But I am caught short again today at how absent this conversation is with regard to mission in North America.
Though Pippa doesn’t go here in her post, the white North American savior complex frequently encouraged by the structures of the trips, if not through explicit language of “helping the poor ______” (fill in the blank with a Central American country or simply “Africans” or “Asians”), distorts the image of God in all involved. Those who serve become all-benevolent, providing all the necessary resources they believe are needed to fix the problem. And that posture encourages the idea that they have no needs. On the other hand, those being served are depicted as having nothing but great and insurmountable needs from which they need rescuing. An image which ignores and buries the gifts that God has entrusted to them. (…with thanks to Andy Crouch for that insight). There is little argument that Western colonialism & paternalism – even with the most generous of intents – has permeated and distorted our short term cross-cultural engagements overseas. (Livermore’s Serving with Eyes Wide Open and Corbett’s & Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts are good initial resources for engaging mission, including short term mission, in a much healthier way).
What strikes me though is how absent this type of perspective around “white savior” behaviors and attitudes is within the North American mission context. Lots of summer camps for “inner-city kids” and spring break mission trips to impoverished urban centers cater their staff and volunteer recruiting toward white university students. The goal of the camps is often to provide kids from the city (a not-so-subtle way of saying “black” or “latino” kids) with experiences that they normally would not have access to. And this goal is achieved by taking the kids away from their families and homes for a week or more and placing them under the supervision of mostly white university students. One of the side effects is a subtle message that white university students provide what parents, families, and communities of color cannot possibly give to their own kids.
In a similar way, spring break mission trips often promote the same kind of mentality. Primarily white high school & university students parachute into an “under-resourced community” (again, a not-so-subtle way of indicating a neighborhood consisting primarily of lower income persons of color) to provide programs, evangelistic outreach, and work projects that the community presumably is incapable of providing for itself. The debilitating message is reinforced: “white educated people have the resources that poor black/latino kids need.” As others have asked with regard to oversea missions, I am asking about mission in our own backyards: What good news are we proclaiming when mission is so consistently framed around opportunities for white people with resources to provide for people of color who need resources?
I am not implying that there is nobody doing short-term, cross-cultural engagement well, either overseas or in our own backyards. I know of organizations in the States and Canada that are acutely aware of the way racist assumptions and economic biases can be developed and reinforced through mission engagement. And those agencies are working actively on multiple layers to address these dynamics. However, in reading Pippa’s blog post this morning, I am again struck by how much more attention is given to the ways that these assumptions around race & economics are embedded in motivations and structures of mission overseas, but not when mission occurs here in North America. What makes us think racism and classism are acceptable here when we know its not there?
With the popularity of churches hosting mission opportunities for high school students to go to some urban environment in the US & Canada, conversations about how race and economics play into the way we prioritize and go about our mission efforts need to take a higher priority. It’s time we view short term mission engagement in North America, including summer camps and spring break trips, through the same lens that we are coming to view cross-cultural mission in “oversea” settings around the world.