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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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.