Volunteering VS. Voluntouring

Disconnect Tourism From Service


Lisa Anderson

Cuban women roll cigars in a local Miami shop on Calle Ocho.

Sarah Nelson, Staff Writer

As I strolled in the middle of my large church group down Calle Ocho in Miami, I felt like a tourist. We were checking out shops, viewing the old men play dominos, and watching Cuban women roll cigars. I  asked myself, why am I here? This isn’t giving up my time to serve others. I’m not making connections to new people. Although I had many moments were I met amazing individuals and felt as though I was contributing through service, it was occasionally masked by the privilege of being able to go sight-seeing. My purpose was volunteering, not voluntouring. I wasn’t there to see as many Miami icons as I could, I was there to work. I hate losing that sense of purpose and getting sidetracked but it happens all the time. It’s fun and exciting to experience another part of the world, and it offers new perspectives. But I struggled with the power imbalance I felt. The speakers who discussed Miami’s socio-economic struggles, time and time again used the word solidarity. They wanted our group to stand with them, not from a place above. I had to navigate through the fog of advantages to focus on the common beliefs and goals we held together. Whether we were providing manual labor or receiving awareness education, it was important that our group made meaningful connections and held mutual respect for those we served.

Joy Mielke ’18 has been on several missions trips and finds it gives her a new worldly perspective as well as new connections to god. “The purpose (volunteering) to me, is to discreetly spread the word of the gospel to people of different backgrounds,” Mielke said, “Especially on the Lakota trips, I became a lot closer to to my church family.” She traveled to South Dakota through Westchester E-Free twice, Chongqing, China through Bring Me Hope twice, and also to Haiti also through Westchester E-Free. “I don’t think I had a lot of background information when I went to China, but my family lived there so that did help. The second time I went I had knowledge from the previous year so I sort of knew what I was doing.”

As a high schooler, I didn’t really feel I had the training to perform some of the tasks that were needed in these communities. I was there to help most importantly, but I felt I was under qualified. We worked in a community garden that needed some weeding and transplanting of trees. I wouldn’t have been able contribute if it weren’t for community member George’s expertise as a gardener. I felt I took too much time away from George just receiving instructions. Someone else with a experienced background in botany for example could have contributed more than I ever could have in the same given time-span. The professionals I met were amazing and inspiring beyond belief, but I felt it best to only acknowledge my capabilities as minuscule compared to theirs and rely on my effort. My group could only go so far on effort. The idea that all these problems are so large and far away, makes me feel as though I could do more at home. In Des Moines, the homeless community is in need and right around the corner.

I felt I needed to respect the people I was there to served, so I didn’t take pictures during the different sessions. I felt it could break the confidence and neglect the privacy of the individuals that were receiving assistance. Many families would stop by the clothes pantry in the homeless shelter, and I’d hate for them to feel uncomfortable because of our presence. I had the strong urge to take pictures everywhere I went, trying to absorb as many amazing new experiences as I could. While I posted things like coffee pictures and anecdotes on social media for family and friends, I believe that pictures of the people we served could cause unnecessary harm.

As much as I love participating in mission trips every year, I have to ask myself why I go. I want to make more of an effort to do what I can here, rather than take a vacation and call it volunteering. Westminster Presbyterian and many other churches have done great work around the country and even abroad, but does the cost of traveling balance out the services to those in need that is provided? Could more be done using the same resources in a different manner? The big picture issues obviously can’t be tackled in a week’s time, but awareness of these issues can be addressed.  I will still take part in mission trips, but my perspective since my first trip has changed. Bottom line, when volunteering I believe the people you serve should gain more than your benefits from the trip. As long as the trips I choose to go on continue to help others, I will reach out and travel to those opportunities.