This is not the first time I’ve addressed the issue of voluntourism (See Crossing Cambodia and Voluntourism Pt. 1), however, its an issue that seems to keep coming up again and again. Recently I wrote about treating Missions as a Two Way Street, and was asked if I really think it is ok for us to have foreign teams come in regularly, many of which may not necessarily have many practical skills that they can share. In addition to that question I was sent a link to an article about voluntourism in Cambodia, about whether or not the efforts of short term volunteers and tourists are actually helpful, harmful, or at least neutral and inspiring to foreigners. (See link below)
The article brings up a good point about bringing foreigners over without really involving Cambodian people in the process. Coming from the West we often come with a “White Savior Complex,” as it is often called, where we assume that because we have so much more earthly wealth that we can help the less fortunate. It’s this attitude that often makes volunteering, and especially voluntourism, a harmful endeavor. However, teams and volunteers are still valuable, we just have to approach it with the right attitude, looking at it as sharing with each other and going into the situation with humility.
When we bring in teams and volunteers to spend time with and play with kids, we expect them to be committing a solid chunk of time, not just a day or two. We put a strong emphasis on fellowship and really getting to know each other because we believe it is our job to have an equal exchange with one another. Teams and volunteers can commit time when we can’t afford staff, they may bring funding or supplies, they may be able to teach, but our staff and kids also are able to share with them. Its our job to teach volunteers and teams that the Cambodian people are their equals, not having pity on them, but admiring them for their resilience, how they muster on in spite of the hand life has dealt them, and how they find joy in simple things.
If a tourist comes to us and wants to volunteer we usually turn them down. A few days doesn’t help us much and creates more work for us unless that person is bringing valuable skills to the table and using them to support the local Cambodians in their work. We’ve had people come help us create policy documents for our staff. We’ve had people come and do professional workshops on administration and first aid. When doctors or dentists come we are able to get solid information about health needs and make long-term care plans for our students. These are the kind of things that can be accomplished in just a few days, and usually aren’t the things tourists are prepared to do. We’ll gladly talk to tourists and tell them about what we do, but our kids are not just another activity on the itinerary. If people really really want to meet our kids they’ll take some time to get to know us first and talk to us and learn how they can approach their visit with the right attitude.
Also, if a person comes to us, willing to commit a solid chunk of time with our kids, but don’t have a lot of valuable skills to share, we still look at how much their love can affect our kids. Street kids are the bottom rung of Cambodian society. It is difficult, to put it lightly, to find people willing to commit time and energy to these kids just to make sure they know they are valued. But our kids know, when volunteers come, they have just committed a lot of time and money to come half way around the planet and spend time with them. And the volunteers ignore the dirt and grime and crap on the kids and pick them up. They don’t turn away in disgust but play anyways. They get ringworm and lice from the kids and do so with joy, because our kids know that someone loves them. Words cannot adequately describe how much this means to the kids and how it affects their lives and self-confidence.
When I see our staff and volunteers willing to ignore the physical state of the street children and be with them anyways I think of how Christ reached out and touched a man with leprosy.
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him,“See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
In that time lepers were feared and cast out from society. No one went near them for fear of catching leprosy and would go out of their way to avoid and ignore them. In Cambodia I see a similar attitude towards the street children. People don’t want them around. The kids are dirty and people avoid them at all costs. People often would rather they didn’t exist than to try and help them. But often I think of how Christ discarded all the stigma surrounding lepers and touched a man with leprosy. Christ healed the man and showed God’s love and compassion to him. He didn’t do any token acts of charity to feel good or for fun, He genuinely committed Himself to serving others out of love and for their salvation.
So often I see our staff ignoring the stigmas of street children and playing with them and showing them God’s love and compassion. And when volunteers are able to do the same, we want to use that opportunity to share true Godly love to these children.
If you want to come to Crossing Cambodia we hope to change your attitude. We don’t want you to come to save someone less fortunate than you and feel good about yourself. We don’t want you to be coming just when its convenient and because you think it will be fun. We want you to come with the intent to be like Christ, to spend time with us and our kids, to share and be taught, to love and be loved.
With that kind of an attitude, there is no telling what kind of amazing things you can do in Cambodia and what kind of amazing things our staff and kids can do in your life as well.
Greg Holz is the Mission Director for Crossing Cambodia. He works to find the resources necessary for the local Cambodian staff to serve street children and make a difference in their lives. He has been living in Cambodia since 2007, has married a Cambodian woman, and calls Battambang home. He started working with street children in 2011 and acting on his faith founded Crossing Cambodia in 2013 with the goal of getting them in school, breaking the cycle of poverty in their lives, and sharing God’s love daily.