Is it Service, or Something Else?

Every summer, I notice that a lot of people go on “service trips,” where they spend a relatively short period of time in a foreign, “under-developed,” country, providing some sort of service to the native people. Among my acquaintances this service is usually teaching English, but I know there are other things people do on these trips like building houses and schools.

I find it interesting that so many people are willing to drop everything for x-amount of weekends and pay thousands of dollars to go and serve those less fortunate. I find it interesting because these same people have probably, at least once in their life, walked past a homeless person on the sidewalk without giving them anything. I also find it interesting that these same people are ready and willing to go and teach English in a foreign country, but are probably not too concerned with literacy problems in the US.

I know this isn’t the case with everybody who goes on a service trip. I know there are people who probably give both at home and abroad. And that’s awesome. But I think we need to ask ourselves why we’re so much more willing to give when the giving experience includes a trip to a foreign locale with plenty of activities and sight-seeing trips organized for our enjoyment (I’ve been to the websites; I know that’s how they advertise).

I think at least of part of the reason has to do with receiving praise and attention from others. If you give a homeless woman a dollar, people don’t get too worked up about it. They might say that that was nice of you, but, in reality, they’ll probably just tell you that that woman is going to put that dollar towards buying drugs. However, if you go to an African country (we need to stop referring to Africa like it’s one giant country; it’s a continent, folks) and teach English, people are going to give you all kinds of praise, especially is post pictures on a blog and/or Facebook.

I get that, to an extent, traveling to another country is a bigger deal than giving someone on the sidewalk money. There’s a lot more planning and such that goes into the service trip. And I’m not trying to say that going on a service trip is not significant.

I just think more energy needs to be spent focusing on American poverty, malnutrition in America (watch the documentary A Place at the Table; that’s a thing), illiteracy in America. I think foreign service is a lot more appealing because it is foreign and exotic. But imagine what you could do with the 2500 dollars you spent to go on that service trip. You could do so much to help people in the US.

I feel like this is turning into a ‘Merica rant. I’m not one of those. I promise. But I’ve watched some videos recently in which African people specifically are telling everyone to stop pitying them. In the first video, which is now unavailable, unfortunately (I swear I didn’t make it up), a Kenyan man tells a student who asks him what he can do to help Kenyan people that Kenya doesn’t need a savior, America does. The second video is a man focusing on the way Africa is always written about and discussed. I’m sure you could say similar things about other countries frequently visited by service givers.

People go on these trips and talk about the people they served as if they are victims. As if they are absolutely hopeless and wouldn’t have a chance without their benevolence. They often act like they have it all figured out and these natives wouldn’t be able to survive without their Western knowledge. I wonder how much of this service is driven by genuine charity and how much is driven by white supremacy and a desire to Westernize non-Western places. I’m going into conspiracy theory mode, which means it’s probably time to stop.

Anyways, to close. I don’t think service trips are bad things, and I definitely don’t condemn those who choose to go on them. I do, however, find them and the reason people go on them problematic. As always, this is just food for thought, and I would love to hear what y’all think, especially if you have any additions or new angles with which to approach this issue.