We have all seen them. They break our hearts, put smiles on our faces, make us think it was all worth it. They are the stereotypical trip photos made into Facebook profile pictures and decorating church PowerPoint presentations. And they usually take the form of a missionary posing with an impoverished local child, swallowed in clothes two sizes too big, their dirty faces standing in contrast to their beautiful eyes and brilliant smiles.
But here we must again return to the concept of motivation and explore a notion that people might be less inclined to admit to…
Who would want to do that? Who wants to be a tourist in unclean and poverty-stricken streets? Isn’t tourism what you do in lavish and luxurious places like Italy and France? This is certainly not what you do on a mission trip! You’re right – it’s not. Or rather, it shouldn’t be. But let’s think about what you do on a tourist vacation. You take pictures of all the famous sites you visited, maybe snapping some of yourself with local street performers. Essentially, you visit that country to use it for what it has to offer you, telling stories to your friends at home of the excellent hotel service, food, or how awful the transportation systems were.
Cambodia is not like Italy or France. While both experience poverty, it is safe to say that you will not be travelling to Cambodia to stay in fancy hotels, and the people you will be working and interacting with are NOT sites to see the way the Eiffel Tower is either. They are NOT trophies to be used to exhibit your love and compassion when you return home to tell your friends and family members about your trip.
They are people. They have equal value to those of us who are fortunate enough to experience a higher standard of living. To treat them otherwise would be exploitation. It is hardly expected that you would travel to Cambodia with such a malicious purpose. You do, after all, have some amount of passion for those who are being rescued out from under the evil and oppressive hand of sexual exploitation.
But just as using missions as an avenue to achieve adventure is often unconsciously done, so too is holding the attitude of poverty tourism. How would you feel if a foreign missionary came to you and your family’s home, picked up your children, and started snapping pictures of them? Poverty tourism stems, ultimately, from an attitude of pride.
Let’s look at the attitude Jesus had toward those He worked with and ministered to by checking out Mark 6. After Jesus told His disciples to retreat to rest after a long time of ministry, the people would not give them a break and went ahead of them. Jesus “saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”5 Indeed Jesus had compassion. But it was one that was marked with a love that compelled Him to work in the trenches, to rebuke the arrogance of the Pharisees, to both heal and challenge the destitute and the sinners.
That’s what I am here for, you say. But let us also look at Matthew 18. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”6
The key here is the humility to which Jesus calls His disciples. You might be willing to serve day and night, or to carry the grimy bodies of little children, but are you doing so with a heart of humility toward those whom you serve?
Taking pictures is not inherently a bad thing. And it is natural if you experience a level of culture shock at the poverty with which people live in comparison to your own standard of living. But be careful not to let material pride keep you from walking humbly and instead lead you into poverty tourism – into using the circumstances of others merely to gratify your desire to do something good.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I willing to dig in the trenches, even if I never get to see the fruit of my work?
- Am I willing to leave my camera at home to prevent me from exploiting the circumstances of the local people?
- How would I feel if our trip’s shopping day got canceled?
- How do I truly view the lives of people who are materially less fortunate than me, and how does this compare with the attitude and life of Christ?
- Do I want to go just to see what it is like for other people to live in poverty?
- Is my bleeding heart simply defined by pity, or a genuine, Christ-like love?
Ask the Lord to convict your heart of poverty tourism you may have exhibited in the past or as an attitude you might have now.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8 (ESV)
5 Mark 6:34 ESV
6 Matt. 18: 1-6 ESV