I cringed! Really? Again?
I looked at her and shook my head, trying desperately to formulate a response that wouldn't reveal my annoyance and frustration at yet another simplistic and distorted characterisation of the poor and an overt idealisation of development practitioners working in cross cultural contexts.
I have heard these statements before, many times in fact, especially from younger church members who had recently returned from short-term mission trips aboard. Typically these statements referred to how happy and joyful and content the slum communities were, despite their abject poverty and social and political disfranchisement.
Whilst many of these statements were indeed well-intentioned, they were also completely naive and misguided; romanticising poverty and idealizing the poor in ways that was both harmful and limiting.
In his article Poor but Happy: Volunteer Tourists' Encounters with Poverty, Emilie Crossley explores these very issues, particularly examining how young volunteer tourist's reconfigure and idealise the poor. Crossley claims that volunteer tourists often romanticise poverty through portraying "materially deprived societies as happy with their ways of life and as adequately compensated for their poverty by emotional, spiritual or community 'wealth'".
Whilst recognising and celebrating the joy and contentment of various individuals and groups within slum communities is not dangerous in itself, it can be very harmful when volunteers simplify these communities through ascribing them a limited range of emotions or characterizations.
Whilst many individuals we encountered through short term mission trips may indeed display overt joy and friendliness, they are people who also exhibit anger, disappointment, doubt and jealously.
During my time in the Philippines, I began to see that behind the faÃ§ade, there was a lot of pain and heartache. There were stories of abuse and abandonment. There were very deep insecurities and there were feelings of resentment and jealously. Whilst they, just like us, give the very best of themselves to outsiders and visitors, there also live lives that are complex and as such they are not always happy or content just because they are spiritually or relationally 'rich'.
This became even more apparent to me six months ago when several Filipino students in the university sponsorship program I coordinate, began to openly quarrel with one another. At first I was extremely disappointed that these students were exhibiting such ugly attitudes. I expected these students to be grateful, joyous, diligent and harmonious. They were being given an opportunity to study at university, and I was shocked that they were acting and speaking like teenagers.
It was then that I realised that I too had placed them on a pedestal; idealized them as perennially grateful and diligent students. I had romanticised their position and attitude in life; they were teenagers facing extreme hardships, and often they were so poised and fearless. I had come to expect these attributes at all times; I had expected them to be faultless.
But these Filipino teenagers weren't always happy or content or even nice to one another. They are sinful human beings, just like me and every other Christian volunteer who hopes to engage with them.
I had unconsciously committed the gripe I so often chastised others for committing; I had stereotyped these impoverished communities as perfectly happy because they were spiritually authentic and relationally rich. I had created a characterization which left little to no room for sin.
Clearly it is impossible; it's setting people up to disappoint us, to fail. They can't always be switched on, happy and content and polite and honorable.
Why do we expect so much more from the poor than we expect from ourselves? We hold them in such high regard, that we have unconsciously placed them onto a pedestal in which we look to them for authentic and simple and cooperative living.
As Crossley concludes "poverty's capacity to shock, move and leave potentially life-changing impressions on people is dampened because it is perceived through the lens of cultural stereotypes and fantasies, imprinting images of the 'exotic', 'authentic' and of 'happy' communities upon 'voluntoured' destinations".
Thus when volunteering abroad, Christians need to be conscious that we are interacting with people, who are also imperfect, and often experience or exhibit qualities and characteristics that we also feel and say and do. We must attempt to see beyond the veneer and shallow characterisations that we so often see or create for materially impoverished communities. And most importantly we must recognize that poverty does not guarantee a happier or more faithful life than our own.
Wealth and poverty must not obstruct nor enhance our relationship with God. Indigent communities are not necessarily more faithful because of their poverty. Just as affluent communities are not more faithful because of their wealth. If we become fixated on where we come from or how much we have then we are again losing focus on what really matters…our relationship with God.
Thus spiritual depth can be displayed anywhere throughout the world, whether it be Sydney's inner suburbs, the Australian outback, the Melbourne CBD or Cambodia's rural slums. This spiritual depth cannot be determined by material wealth or alternatively material destitution. Rather this spiritual depth is determined through having an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ.
Alison Barkley lives in Newcastle and is a post graduate student at Deakin University.
Alison Barkley's archive of articles may be viewed at: www.pressserviceinternational.org/alison-barkley.html