“Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” *quote to author Katherine Boo from a woman in a community she was reporting on.*
When Katherine Boo wanted to write about a community in India she spent 4 years living within blocks of the neighborhood. She went to the slum that she wrote about every day. She took copious notes and recorded conversations making every effort to check facts and verify stories.
She didn’t swoop in like an eagle eyeing its prey, ready to snatch and eat. She was steadfast and disciplined. It sounds like a laborious task, but also like a writer who was determined not to dishonor those she was writing about.
I didn’t realize until this year that there was such a thing as blogging trips for Christians, a short-term mission if you will.
Let me explain.
Let’s say an organization that works in the developing world wants to promote their work, get the word out on what they are doing. The new way to do this is to bring on popular bloggers, bloggers with thousands of readers and tens of thousands of twitter followers. The thought is that these bloggers will take their 7-day or 10-day trips to a country and come back with stories. Compelling stories of poverty and women and justice and why it’s important that we know about these people and these situations. Ultimately there are two goals: Raising awareness and raising money. The two go hand in hand.
A good writer can use their platform to do both those things for the organization.
But I’m not sure I agree with this approach to awareness or advocacy. And, though I’ve read several blog posts that challenge short-term missions, I’ve read only one essay that brings up blogging trips.
Before I move forward let me be clear: I am really trying to work through this one. I’m not trying to point a finger, I’m not trying to judge, but I am trying to get my head around this and why I question the validity of these trips.
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
The bloggers that go on short-term blogging trips are complete outsiders. They rarely know the language or the culture to which they are going. The chance of them misreading culture clues, misunderstanding what is communicated, and thus misrepresenting the situation is high, indeed probable. The chance of getting a distorted view of the country and the people is also probable. While this can happen in regular short-term mission trips, in the case of blogging trips the material is distributed to a wide audience, an audience who (in general) has not traveled, does not know the developing world in all its complexity.
The story is big, but the understanding is small.
There’s another problem that I see. And that is of glorifying the poor as sainted in their poverty, barely capable of sinning or evil. The beautiful African kids, noble in their poverty, the woman who uses her hands to sew clothes for livelihood and raises ten children on the side. The one-dimensional views that the blogger gets in their limited exposure to the situation can come across as naïve and creative writing, instead of fact telling and informative.
I think stories are important, I tell them myself. I also think that it’s important to see other parts of the world, to have our worldviews challenged and exposed, to rethink Christianity beyond a western lens. And if that is all the bloggers were doing I think I would be okay.
As I’ve tried to work through my feelings on this new type of short-term missions, I continually come back to the writing and work of Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and one who works hard to write well on poverty. I was first introduced to Boo through the excellent writing of D.L.Mayfield. She and Rachel Pieh Jones have become internet mentors to me on story telling, largely because they do it so well and have wrestled with this longer than I have. D.L.Mayfield wrote a piece called “Katherine Boo, Short-term Missions, and the Earned Fact“. In her essay she confronts well the tendency of the church to simplify problems and write without regard for the complexity of the issues.
The goal would be to write without glorifying or demonizing, to tell a story that is accurate and compelling, free of stereotypes and broad representation. In Boo we see a writer who does this, a writer with the rare ability to remove herself and ego from her narratives of others, a difficult task. She does not get lost behind sweeping generalizations but in her own words “Nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people.” (from Reporting Poverty in Guernica Magazine)
I see in Katherine Boo a real and honest struggle with how to report. She does not gloss over the difficulties, she does not use words like a “voice for the voiceless” or “advocate”, something that I would argue takes far longer than a week or ten days to achieve. Instead, she wrestles honestly through this work and this vocation.
I have spent a great deal of time overseas, and thankfully when I was there I had not yet discovered that I loved to write. I say thankfully because I fear it would have been far more about me than about the people or countries that I love. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much time overseas that I struggle with a 7 to 10 day trip that supposedly equips the writer with material that will be widely distributed and read.
I began this piece with a quote taken from an article in Guernica Magazine called “Reporting Poverty” in which a writer interviews Katherine Boo. I come to the end of this piece with another quote – one that pierces to the heart of the issue:
“We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.”
Blogger’s note: I realize this may be controversial and I welcome diverse opinions. As I said in the piece, I’m trying to work through this and may well end up with a different opinion.
*as quoted in Guernica Magazine: Reporting Poverty by Emily Brennan
- Toxic Charity? (pastorjohnkeller.org)
- Short-Term Missions: The Reasons We Go – Addie Zierman
- The Searing Grace of Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” (davidghallman.wordpress.com)
- What I Thought I Knew About Short Term Mission Trips (shaungroves.com)