Imagine that you are a single parent struggling to provide for your children’s basic needs. Every day is a battle to get food on the table and clothes on their backs, let alone provide the emotional support they need. You are tired.
A church from the other side of town learns about your struggles and a few members show up at your apartment with several bags of groceries and a gift card to a local Wal-Mart. You almost fall over with gratitude! Your hope is replenished and you take a breath because this week you will be okay.
Members from the church keep coming to your apartment every week. Sometimes they bring groceries and money, but sometimes they just come to hang out. You continue to be thankful but sometimes they show up right after school when your kids are supposed to be doing homework, but you don’t want to seem ungrateful so you smile and allow for the visit.
Every day, new church members show up. Many of them are young and enjoy hanging out and playing with your children. They come and take selfies with them which makes you a little nervous, but you let it slide. There is something about coming to this side of town and hanging out with your children that make these church members feel good about themselves. You want to believe this is okay but inside you start to feel like your love is not enough.
It seems like you have lost control of your home and your 10 year-old daughter is sitting on the laps of well-meaning strangers now. So many church members have come with trinkets and toys that your 5-year old boy shows up at the front door with open hands expecting to get a toy.
You feel torn. Yes—you are getting money for groceries but after a year of these visits you notice that your children are a little distant from you now. Your son seems to attach to any smiling person that comes to the front door and your daughter has developed some disturbing behaviors to get attention from some of the young men. You worry because her dad took off when she was a baby and you don’t want her thinking that she has to smile and bat her eyes to get attention. It is not okay to grab phones out of strangers pockets and hug on random people’s backs. All the rules and etiquette you have tried to teach them have flown out the window!
But the Pastor at the church keeps sending people to do your chores and bond with your children. The more church members that feel “bonded” and that have “loved” on your children- the more likely you are to have groceries and clothes and gifts. And yet you feel empty and useless and trapped. You feel guilty for feeling ungrateful.
They are spending so much time with your children—yet no one has asked you what you need. None of these members know that you never finished high school. They don’t know that you struggle to read and that maybe if there was an opportunity to learn—you could get a better job. Maybe if there were someone who could help you with some of these long-forgotten goals of yours….just maybe……
The good intentions of this church from the other side of town has done something to your family. Something so bad that you can’t say it out loud. For what they have done is this:
They have forced you to pimp out your children to ensure their survival and no one in the church must ever know.
This scenario may sound extreme but the church unknowingly contributes to these behaviors every day. It is called volunteer tourism or short-term mission trips on its very best day but on its very worst, it is a contributing factor to the growing orphan industry in the developing world.
While I recognize the limitations in my analogy, I have witnessed loving nannies stand back and allow the children they care for everyday to be enchanted by strangers that will break their hearts a few days later.
I was once at a hotel in Haiti and a mission team was telling me about how sad their last day with the orphans had been. They described how the children were crying and how they had to pry some of their arms open to let go of the team. I could only imagine the agony that could have been spared had the team set healthy boundaries before their arrival. The visitors go home to their families and their things and the nannies stay behind to deal with the aftermath.
Every day, well-meaning churches send gaggles of teams to “bond” with children living in residential care. There is no doubt that beautiful things can happen during these trips. God stirs our hearts in compelling ways as we witness the plight of vulnerable children and recognize how easy we have it in comparison with so much of the world. We are forced to break out of our bubble and confront truths about ourselves that we don’t like.
Sometimes these truths move us to establish long-term partnerships with the people we encounter. We can’t deny that children in residential care benefit from some of these trips—they get to go to school and have access to medical care because of the critical funding that comes in. Somehow, the church has contributed to this flawed system that forces many orphanage directors to repeatedly expose their children to unskilled volunteers just so they can make sure that they can survive.
But at what cost?
Repeated exposure to strangers in residential living has been shown to cause the following negative psychological effects on children:
- Creates detachment disorders
- Increases vulnerability
- Disrupts boundaries essential to healthy child development
- Develops & enforces negative behavior in children exposed to “trusted strangers” on a regular basis
The church unintentionally puts pressure on orphanage leaders to essentially pimp out their children in order to ensure their survival. It is a natural effect when orphanages become dependent on short-term mission trips to get long-term support.
I am not looking to cast judgement on any particular orphanage. I know many good people who care for the most vulnerable children and are doing the very best they can. Our partner orphanage, Grangou, strives to do what is right by their kids and ironically, they struggle because they are not willing to contribute to the existing flawed model.
I am also not proposing abolishing STM (short-term mission trips). As stated before, there is potential for beautiful, Kingdom-work that can occur but we must STOP being moved solely by compassion and engage our intellect and ingenuity when it comes to cross-cultural missions.
We must not contribute to unhealthy behaviors just because we are lost in the moment and moved by compassion. God gave us big, wrinkly brains to think our way to solutions!
It starts with an honest, humble conversation within the orphan care community.
I know this is a lot to think about and I’m not going to drop you off right here. There is a slow shift towards more sustainable and ethical practices when it comes to orphan care. I’ve included some other articles in this blog if you want to learn more. Next week, I’ll be addressing possible solutions and what experts are suggesting could be healthy alternatives to orphan tourism.
There ARE also orphanages out there striving to do right by their kids and ironically, these are the ones that struggle most because they CHOOSE not to contribute to the existing flawed model.
I am guilty of all the above. I have unknowingly contributed to this unhealthy behavior and have been wrestling with this truth for years. Just like the mom in my madeup scenario—I don’t want to disappoint anyone. There are too many people out there polarizing the issue when the truth is there aren’t any easy answers.
I will be sharing a little more about these organizations in my next entry as well as some of the reformations that I am proposing.
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