Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Travel With a Purpose
The latest scheme to make money off of altruism appeared in my in-box the other day from Fathom Impact Travel, a partnership with Carnival Cruise Lines. Cruises to either the Dominican Republic or Cuba promise “a whole new category of travel; it’s travel with a purpose. Travel that transforms lives. Sometimes including your own. Impact travel with Fathom provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded travelers, become immersed in another culture, and work alongside its people to create enduring social impact.” All in seven days. Uh huh.
While much of the itinerary mirrors the standard cruise – gluttonous meals, entertainment, and lolling on the deck beneath the Caribbean sun – Fathom promises to provide opportunities on land to “make a difference.” Instead of dumping a boat load of passengers in a port full of shops selling high end jewelry or clothing and cheap souvenirs, these tours offer cultural immersion and hands on service opportunities. “You’ll work alongside the people of those communities, immersing yourself in their culture, harnessing the power of the human connection to make relevant, lasting contributions.”
Service opportunities in-country include English language learning, creative arts, music, sports, environmental projects like installing water filters and reforestation, chocolate production with a local women’s cooperative, etc. “For three days you’ll work alongside local residents and our partner organizations, adding your unique input to projects that focus on improving environmental, education, and economic conditions for the aspirational and hard-working people of the Dominican Republic. Yes, of course they’ll be learning from you. But the chances are that you’ll be learning a lot from them.” What, I wondered, are a bunch of aspirational and hard-working Dominicans going to learn from a few hundred sun-burned, over-fed American tourists piling off of a cruise ship for a day or two of “service.” Hard to fathom.
If you’re feeling a little guilty or self-indulgent about going on a Caribbean cruise, Fathom’s pitch has, I suppose, some appeal. You’re not really indulging yourself. You’re helping others! How noble. Of course you’re really just helping the juggernaut cruise line industry and the local Dominicans and Cubans who’ve been lured into this latest commercial scheme. There is, as you’ve no doubt detected, something quite distasteful to me about this bald-faced effort to monetize mission.
Congregations with long years of experience in organizing short term mission trips have learned a few things. First, go expecting to learn a lot and teach very little. There are occasions when a person trained in a particular skill identified as a pressing need by folks on the ground can make a real difference. But for the most part, the projects left behind could have been managed just as effectively by local people aided by financial support for supplies and wages. Second, connect with local people through established relationships that can channel enthusiasm into meaningful encounter that does not impose burdensome demands for hospitality on receiving communities. Third, what happens before and after trips matters a lot. A few hours of orientation on board ship won’t cut it. Mission trips that matter involve real study of a lot more than brief exposure to the exotic cultural things you’ll see. And they involve thoughtful guided reflection after the trip is over. Mission trips that matter help Americans understand the structural realities of the global economic system that keep people like the Dominicans impoverished, challenging the notion that justice can be achieved simply through charity. And finally, real mission trips confront us with the need for our own transformation and liberation from bondage to the system of wealth accumulation which allows a few of us to be able to afford expensive cruises to places where clean water is a luxury.
If you want to take a cruise and can afford it, that’s wonderful. It’s not really my thing, but many people love it. Just don’t trust that the commercial cruise ship industry is really all that interested in your transformation or in the economic transformation of the developing world. If you want a cultural or educational immersion, that’s great. There are many religious organizations and NGO’s ready to organize an experience for you that will give you a rich experience. But be prepared to work hard at this far in advance and long after coming home if you really want to understand and not just be entertained. And if you are truly interested in transformation, be prepared to be troubled by the realities of what you see rather than treated to self-serving mission-lite, a trip that challenges North American egotism rather than simply stroking it.
We’re no longer sending the Marines to Cuba or the Dominican Republic to install compliant dictators protecting U.S. economic interests. Now we send tourists on cruise ships with the promise of “making a difference” in order to enrich U.S. economic interests. To be sure, it’s a softer and gentler approach, but it’s hard for me to see how the underlying motives are all that different.
John H. Thomas
September 17, 2015