Monday, August 05, 2013

Missiology 101, Session #1b: Feeding Other People's Children

Don't judge too quickly; Alpha is well-fed.*
So much is swirling in my brain right now (Peter Capaldi as The 12th Doctor, our embassy closed, FPM initiatives, etc.), but I promised I’d get back to you about last week’s mission trip flyer thinking exercise.

Interesting thing about it, my readers generally fell into two distinct categories: those who were instantly horrified by my example, and those who weren’t sure what I was getting at. More interesting, the less exposure the reader had to ‘mission culture,’ the more objectionable s/he found the flyer I described. I lift this up because I’ve found the same phenomenon true about explaining the work of Friendly Planet Missiology (FPM). With rare exceptions, there is an inverse correlation between how much involvement one has had with mission programs and how easy it is for one to intuitively grasp FPM’s approach and see how it is different from the dominant model. I’ve got some fuzzy ideas on why that may be, but I’m sure one could write a dissertation on that question alone. 

So let’s get back to the mission trip flyer that advertised an “opportunity to feed [insert nationality] children.”  What’s wrong with feeding children? Nothing at all. My husband and I feed our toddler multiple times a day, and occasionally we ask someone we trust to do so on our behalf. I would never consider feeding someone else’s child, however, unless the child’s caretaker requested it, and even then I might refrain (but that’s another conversation). What if the child had a dangerous allergy or other medical food-intake issues? How would I feel if a stranger fed my daughter without my explicit permission?  How would I feel if their manner of doing so showed that they thought I was failing at my parental duties or that they didn’t even recognize my parental role?  American parents warn their children about strangers who hand out candy, so why do so many of them then think it’s ok to be the stranger passing out treats in someone else’s neighborhood?

For decades now, countless do-gooder organizations have launched successful fundraising campaigns in the USA that tell middle-class and wealthy Americans that they have a moral obligation to feed hungry children in faraway places. I distinctly remember in the ‘80s and early ‘90s watching the images of unwashed emaciated barefoot children on my television screen as Sally Struthers stood next to them and pleaded that we give up our morning coffee habit and instead purchase sponsor our very own needy child. Some programs even promised that “your” child would send you thank you cards and pictures. For those exposed to such commercials, the guilt trip was put on so thick that it didn’t occur to most of us to question whether such ‘solutions’ to childhood hunger were even appropriate or what the parents of the children in the commercials thought about all of this! I’m not going to go too deep today into why child sponsorship programs are fundamentally unhealthy (the few that are halfway decent aren’t actually child sponsorship programs; they just do bait&switch fundraising), but I encourage you consider that there are healthier and more effective ways to help children. 

The underlying reason why child sponsorship commercials and mission trips to "feed hungry children" are unhealthy is the same. Both ignore the fact that children don’t fall from the sky, and they don’t survive for long outside of their mother’s womb without at least one person who cares feeding them. Any ‘solution’ to childhood hunger that doesn’t play a support role to this person is offensive and unsustainable. “What about orphans?” you ask. Even most orphans have relatives or community members looking out for them the best they can. Yes, there are situations where children are torn out of a nurturing social fabric and are trapped in abuse, de facto slavery or crime networks, but even then for an outside group to create a ‘solution’ that ignores that the hearts of adults from the child’s home community are also breaking is dehumanizing on one of the deepest levels.

Speaking of dehumanizing thinking, the very semantics of getting to feed local children conjures up memories of going to the petting zoo and, for a few coins, getting to feed the cute baby animals. Despite what generations of traveling sideshows and television commercials have programmed deep into our subconscious, children living in far away places are not objects that God placed on Earth to entertain us nor are they there for us to hand-feed or adopt like an exotic pet. If you don’t feel the least bit uncomfortable when a choir of young orphans performs for you on their USA tour, I suggest taking some time to think about those children not as adorable entertainment but as impressionable kids whose visas will soon expire and will soon be thrust back into their barely functioning orphanage. What kind of psychological damage do you think that will do to them, and what kinds of cruel jealousy backlash from other children and adults will they face when they return home? (but I digress)

Now that I’ve scratched the surface on common blindspots relating to hungry children, I'll try to offer some practical advice.

If you are currently in charge of leading/advertising a mission trip that will include interacting with malnourished children, consider the power that semantics and mindsets can have both before and during your trip. For example, instead of advertising a chance to feed children, talk about an opportunity to meet with [insert nationality] community leaders and spend a day at the neighborhood nutrition and tutoring center they created to assist street kids and latchkey families. Be sure that your team members don’t forget that the social taboos concerning stranger-child interaction at home most likely will apply on your trip too. Make sure they also understand that children aren’t puppy dogs in the pet store. Lavishing a struggling child with attention for a few days and then disappearing often does more long-term psychological damage to the child (warped understanding of love and reinforced abandonment issues) then it helps. Don’t tell a child how much you love her/him if you aren’t going to back it up with actions and a lifetime commitment! (and never tell a child that you want to take them home with you---they could hear it as a promise, and you may find it an impossible one to keep even if you were serious about your intensions to adopt her/him)

Now please don’t interpret this blog as a blanket condemnation of child-focused nutrition centers (or food banks or soup kitchens for that matter). They have their place as a stopgap measure until a sustainable solution (living wages for all) is reached. For example, my mother, a public school teacher, is active in a program in her town that provides sack lunches, books and positive social interactions for at-risk children during the summer holidays. Through this program, she interacts with many of her past and future students, encourages them in their reading habits, and fills the nutrition gap normally covered by the free/reduced school lunch program. This program is led by folks who have a holistic view of the problems faced by the children and parents living in the low-income housing sections of their town, and thus it is proactively done in a way that does not dishonor the families that allow their children to participate in it. Do you see the difference between this program and the mission trip as it was advertised?  If not, please don't give up on me yet.  These are hard conversations, and we'll keep on exploring. 

The daily ritual at the Methodist Children's Home in Kamina, DR Congo.

 *Alpha has been living at the Methodist Children's Home in Kamina for several years now.  His caretakers give him plenty of nutritious food, but his body doesn't absorb it. Local hospitals lack the diagnostic equipment to determine the cause and possible solutions.  

Author's addition:  I realized after posting this that I didn't offer any practical advice for folks who are already involved in a child sponsorship program. Since such programs vary greatly in their implementation model, I suggest by looking into your organization's approach.  Read their website and see if they talk about working alongside grassroots leadership structures. Is there any mention of the children's families? Are they working on projects that address the underlying causes of poverty? Do an internet search on criticisms of your organization and see what pops up. Prayerfully decide your next steps from there.  You might decide to stick with the organization, but if you do, please do so because you respect their methodology--not because you've been guilt tripped into thinking a specific child will go hungry without your intervention.    

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